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  • Words by Mr Jack Otter

Decades before Mr Chevy Chase hit a pop-up and headed up the third baseline to be funny, Mr Willem de Kooning smacked a line drive and ran to third because he was Dutch.

"Since he grew up in Holland, he had no idea how to play the game," Ms Joan Ward, the mother of Mr de Kooning's daughter, told The East Hampton Star years later. "He'd hit the ball and run to third base and everybody would be screaming at him."

Last year marked the 65th anniversary of the Artists & Writers Celebrity Softball Game in East Hampton, an observance of somewhat specious specificity, since no one knows for sure when the first game was played. What is known is that some of the most influential artists of the 20th century headed east from New York City in the 1940s, attracted to East Hampton for the light, the air and, hard as it is to believe now, the prices.

"They came out here because you could get a relatively big place to work in for a cheap price," says Mr Leif Hope, who followed from Brooklyn a few years later and played a huge role in promoting the game. Back then, some artists got together to play ball in a sculptor's backyard, and it has become settled history that 1948 was the first game.

The jovial character of the game can be traced to two grapefruits and a coconut, says Mr Jack Graves, the closest thing to the game's historian

In addition to Mr de Kooning and his wife, Ms Elaine de Kooning, the players that day are said to have included abstract expressionists Mr Jackson Pollock, Ms Joan Mitchell and Mr Franz Kline. Mr Hope, manager of the Artists squad, describes the two writers in attendance as hangers-on: "One was Harold Rosenberg, an art critic," he says. "The other guy was Barney Rosset," Ms Mitchell's boyfriend (and future husband). Mr Rosset, the founder of Grove Press, was branded a "smut peddler" for publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover and Mr William S Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

The jovial character of the game can be traced to two grapefruits and a coconut, says Mr Jack Graves, who has written for The Star since 1967 and is the closest thing to the game's historian (and a dominant player for years). In the summer of 1954, according to Mr Graves, Mr Kline pitched a grapefruit to the sculptor Mr Philip Pavia. The fruit exploded, and there were laughs all around. His next at bat, Ms de Kooning fooled him again. Splat. Naturally, on his third trip to the plate, he demanded to see the ball.

The coconut was shaved and painted with stitching and a logo. These guys were good with a brush, after all. "When I hit it, it was like fireworks!" Mr Pavia recalled. "The kids ran out and ate the pieces. It was a wonderful joke."

The juiced ball made its next appearance in 1972, according to Mr Hope. Mr George Plimpton was at the plate. The painter Mr Herman Cherry replaced Mr Dustin Hoffman on the mound. "The first pitch comes in short, and it sort of bounces oddly," Mr Hope recalls. But the next was right down the middle, and the founder of The Paris Review was covered in citrus.

"Plimpton was a very good athlete," says Mr Eric Ernst, grandson of surrealist Mr Max Ernst. "A lanky centre fielder, he kind of reminded me of a WASPy Joe DiMaggio."

Poster for the 1990 game
Courtesy of Artists & Writers

Mr Ernst first went to the games as a boy with his painter dad, Mr Jimmy Ernst. Around 1970 he ran onto the field for the first time, and he's been on the squad ever since. His earliest, hazy memories include a sense of disappointment. "My expectations were that it was a real event. But instead I was rather disappointed with the tomfoolery," he says with a chuckle. Oh, and "year after year, relentless beatings" at the hands of the Writers.

"If there's one change, it's that the Artists have become quite serious also," says Mr Graves. Sick of losing, and accusing the Writers of fielding ringers, the Artists expanded their lineup. In 1977 Mr Hope flew in two champion softball players, describing them as "folk singers from Omaha". The Artists won that year, 13-7.

Mr Christopher Reeve sealed the game for the Artists in 1989 on a Mr Paul Simon hit, beating the throw to catcher Mr Carl Bernstein at the plate. Messrs Alec Baldwin and Ed Burns are frequently in the Artists' line-up. Mr Ernst recalls boxer Mr Gerry Cooney slamming into first baseman (and then-president of NBC News, Mr Andy Lack, leaving him writhing in pain). Is Mr Cooney really an artist? "He does his best work on canvas," parries Mr Hope.

By the time I took the field in 1997 celebrities had long overshadowed scribes and painters, but the grapefruit spirit remained

Mr Ernst misses the "innocence" of yore, but says today's game "does a lot of public good". In 1970, the crowd donated $500 to a legal defence fund for the artist Mr Robert Gwathmey, who had been charged with desecration of the American flag for sewing a peace sign over the stars. Last year, the game raised $120,000 for several charities, including a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

By the time I took the field in 1997 celebrities had long overshadowed scribes and painters, but the grapefruit spirit remained. "We're definitely cheating now," declared Mr Walter Isaacson, as the manager of the Writers, Mr Ken Auletta, got creative with the batting order. Recognising that I was a competent fielder, Mr Auletta left me at second base for eight innings. But acknowledging my deficiencies with the bat, he only sent me to the plate once.

The shenanigans have balanced out. According to Mr Graves' tally, the two sides are 12-12-1 over the past quarter of a century. Which means that when the teams take the field at 2pm on Saturday 16 August, there's a lot on the line.

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