Helen A. Harrison
In a switch on the common habit of shaving off a few years, the annual Artists & Writers Softball Game has added a few. The claim that the first pitch was hurled back in 1948 has been around since at least 1998, which was billed as the 50th anniversary. But was it really? As the venerable contest marks yet another milestone, I was hoping that the research behind Guild Hall Museum’s current exhibition, “Artists & Writers: They Played in the Game,” on view through July 28, would answer that question. No such luck.
The show is a joyful romp around the bases, from the first documented casual outing in 1954 — captured in two photographs and described by Harold Rosenberg, the art critic and only participating writer, as not so much an athletic event as a “preliminary to cocktails” — to last year’s 10-inning celebrity slugfest for charity. Hard evidence is very thin prior to the first fundraiser in 1968, recapped in the East Hampton Star as the 4th annual, moving it at least ten years forward from its recorded origin and further confusing an already obscure history. Let’s face it, if it did begin, as legend has it, in sculptor Wilfrid Zogbaum’s yard, it wasn’t in 1948. He didn’t move to Springs until the early 1950s.
So where does that date come from? Even veteran sportswriter Jack Graves, who has compiled a chronology based on Star reporting over the decades, has fallen back on speculation. His investigative journalism reveals that the purported 1948 game was “played somewhere,” and is “recorded only in memories.” Will it take a subpoena to get Jack to reveal his sources? Inquiring minds would also like to know who placed Jackson Pollock in the lineup. He was the quintessential anti-athlete, the guy who was expelled from high school for complaining about too much emphasis on sports, and whose only known exercise was lifting a beer bottle to his lips.
That said, it’s always a treat to see Guild Hall’s magnificent 1951 Pollock drawing, although a disclaimer on the label would have been nice. (Let’s call him the first honorary ringer.) There are excellent examples by some genuine early participants, including Franz Kline, Ludwig Sander, Philip Pavia, David Slivka, Howard Kanovitz, Herman Cherry and Willem de Kooning (dismissed by Pavia as a “lousy player”), as well as stalwarts of the 1960s like Ray Parker, Warren Brandt, Bill King, Esteban Vicente, Kyle Morris and Syd Solomon, whose yard became the venue. Apart from Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, female artists and writers didn’t enter the fray in numbers until the 1970s.
The fact that many of the works in the show are from the museum’s collection is a testament to the wisdom of focusing on representing artists of the region, many of whom have humiliated themselves repeatedly on the field of broken dreams. Few if any have a longer tenure among the perpetually pathetic Paletteers than Leif Hope, impresario of the charity game, which was inaugurated as a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Eric Ernst, a real glutton for punishment, first faced the mound at the tender age of 12, or was it 13? (Another fuzzy statistic, but hey, this is a competition where even the final score is often in dispute.)
In 1970, the matchup raised $500 for the legal defense fund of artist Robert Gwathmey, who had been cited for defacing the American flag with a peace symbol. As usual, the artists went down to defeat, but by only one run instead of the typical shellacking. A rare poster for that event is among those in the memorabilia gallery, replete with T-shirts, caps, and videos of play and sideline interviews. Here too is the Scriveners’ deep bench of publications — but incredibly, none of Harold Rosenberg’s books. Also missing, although billed in the gallery handout, is a Gwathmey painting from the Guild Hall collection. Considering his fundraiser’s iconic status in the annals, it’s an odd omission.
What once was amateur recreation notable for its ineptitude has evolved into a star-studded spectacle that Graves laments has been “discomfortingly well-played in recent years.” The roster now boasts movie stars and supermodels moonlighting as artists, and a scribes’ squad that runs the gamut from Pulitzer Prize-winners to those whose literary talent is confined to check-writing. But be the players bona fide or bogus, the aim is to support local non-profits. And by that measure, whether the game is really 65 years old or only 59, it just gets better with age.
Franz Kline (standing center), Ludwig Sander and friends at the 1954 softball game. Photo: Archives of American Art.