“The only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball,” says Annie Savoy in the sexy, smart and humorous “Bull Durham” (1988). It happens to be in my opinion the best baseball movie – and a very entertaining film for non-fans. I went to see it on its opening day on June 15, 1988. In that period of my life I was living in New York City and frequented baseball games all summer long. For a long time after, I intertwined the warm season with the sport. As we entered this Labor Day weekend, and the official end to the strangest summer in my life, my mind gravitated to nostalgic memories of those days at the ballparks. I loved the game for all of its theatricality, eccentricities, superstitions, colorful characters on and off the field, and the rivalries. I also loved keeping score on the program, stretching in the middle of the seventh inning and the smelling of hot dogs, beer, getting to shell peanuts and eating cracker jacks. I like the wisdom and philosophies that are in it. I like the athleticism and masculinity of it – and the fact that it can get goofy and not take itself so seriously. All of these qualities are captured in this nimble sport romantic comedy.
Annie is a baseball groupie and unofficial spiritual counselor to the minor league team the Durham Bulls. At the beginning of every season she selects one player that she’ll train and nurture both mentally and physically throughout the season. She focuses on the best candidates, and she narrows it down to two. One of them is rookie Ebby Calvin Laloosh – who is not very bright, but has incredible – albeit haphazard – pitching. The other is “Crash” Davis – who is a twelve year veteran catcher in the minor leagues and has been brought in to help groom Laloosh – or as he calls him “Meat” – for the major leagues. Crash is not interested in Annie’s proposition. “After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out,” he tells her. Both official trainer Crash and the unsanctioned Annie will use their particular techniques to indoctrinate Ebby and help him become the best player he can be. Crash will urge him to stop overthinking too much and just pitch – let the catcher do the thinking. “Don’t try to strike everybody out.. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls,” he tells him. Annie will work on his control through lovemaking – will introduce him to poetry, to breathing through his eyeballs – and will encourage him to wear garter belts underneath his uniform.
This was director Ron Shelton’s first film. He graduated from Westmont College here in Santa Barbara – and spent five years as a second baseman in the minors. His inside knowledge of the game is felt in his command of the atmosphere – as well as the vocabulary used by his characters. It is the specificity of place and language that makes the film so persuasive and irresistible. He surrounds the triangle at the center of the story with all these quirky and well-defined characters. There’s the manager Skip and Larry the pitching coach – who’s constantly spitting tobacco and whose vernacular is unintelligible. They’re a classic comic duo. There’s also Annie’s sidekick who has a big heart and is looking for marriage. There are terrific moments in this movie. A baseball mound discussion turns from baseball to an argument about what to bring to a wedding. We also get inside the player’s heads – and we listen to what their thoughts are.Shelton is able to mix romance, comedy and fable-like qualities into the narrative. He bathes the entire movie with a glow that perfectly captures that nostalgic twilight shimmer that makes going to stadium so irresistible.
Its three leading players are aces. Susan Sarandon as Annie brings an earthiness to the role – which in a less deft performer could have become a sexist caricature. Kevin Costner is confident and oozes charisma. The chemistry between him and Sarandon is combustible. Robbins is a total goofball – and nearly steals the festivities. I love watching him roll his eyes as he pitches from the full windup.
This is a close as we can get to a ballpark – and it will give you lots to root for.
Crash Davis: “Well, I believe in the soul, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”
Available to stream on STARZ (with subscription via cable/satellite provider, via Hulu or Amazon Prime Video,) Fubo, The Roku Channel, Hoopla, SHOWTIME, Tubi, PlutoTV and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by Ron Shelton
Directed by Ron Shelton
Starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson and Robert Wuhl
Director Ron Shelton on The Making of “Bull Durham”
“I was attached to direct ‘Bull Durham’ before I wrote it. The pitch was “Lysistrata in the minor leagues” – in those days pitches were about the reductive essence of a narrative idea. [‘Lysistrata’ is a play, written by Aristophanes and originally performed in Greece in 411 BC, about one woman’s mission to end a war by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace.] I wrote it quickly, without an outline, and we pretty much shot the first draft. There are lots of additional bits and scenes in the script that didn’t survive the edit, which is a good thing. It probably took about ten weeks to write it, not that there’s any significance in how long something like that takes. I’ve written scripts much quicker and taken years on others.
…All of ‘Bull Durham’ was from my experience, although jokes like the “lollygagger bit” are made up–I always liked the word. Our manager, Bill Werle at Stockton, once threw all the bats we had in the shower because we had a no-hitter thrown at us that night. And yes, we did occasionally flood the field in order to get a night off. There were almost no scheduled days off in the Texas League, and at times we were desperate for a break. Problem is, once we did it in Amarillo only to find we were stuck with a night in Amarillo.” (rediscoverthe80s.com)
Shelton on Casting “Bull Durham”
“Bull Durham” still needed star power. Kevin Costner was interested, but back then, he wasn’t yet world famous. In Hollywood, he was known as the guy whose scenes had been cut out of “The Big Chill.” Then, in 1987, he appeared in back-to-back hits: “The Untouchables” and “No Way Out.” The actor’s emergence as a box-office draw, Shelton said, led to Orion Pictures financing the baseball movie. Though Costner already had been cast as the lead, he insisted on proving to Shelton that he could actually mash. After downing a couple of vodkas together one afternoon, the director and star headed to a miniature golf course on Van Nuys Boulevard in Los Angeles. Tucked between fake castles and an arcade was a batting cage. “We put a bunch of quarters in the slot,” Shelton said. Costner, who played high school baseball, proceeded to hit from both sides of the plate. He and Shelton next played catch in the parking lot. “People were walking by him all the time,” the latter said. “They didn’t know who he was yet.” Long before minor league baseball became a cash cow, the Bulls, then a Single-A affiliate of the Braves, played in creaky 60-year-old Durham Athletic Park. Shelton called the weathered stadium and the city “the perfect place” to shoot the movie. Pete Bock, one-time general manager of the Bulls and the founder of the Coastal Plain League, rounded up minor leaguers to fill roles and helped turn the actors into passable players. Future Red Sox manager Grady Little, then the Bulls skipper, was also hired as a consultant. “Costner was athletic,” Little told The Charlotte Observer in 2014. “He could play baseball, golf, whatever. No problem. But Tim Robbins? He was supposed to be this hard-throwing pitcher, and we had a time with him, trying to get it to look like his delivery would get the ball there hard.” What Robbins lacked in natural athleticism, he overcame with an excess of goofy charm. “Tim’s performance is underrated,” Shelton said. “He makes you really care about Nuke. He never makes a fool out of him.” Shelton thought Costner’s turn as Crash was “perfect.” When it came to Sarandon, the director went even further. “Susan was transcendent,” he said. “She’s wise, but she’s vulnerable as hell.” (theringer.com)
Kevin Costner on “Bull Durham”
“…I was 33, and that’s kind of late both in my profession and baseball, so it’s kind of like a love of the game thing, like him. You can’t really let go. I related to him quite a bit in that I couldn’t give up on things, couldn’t let them go, and that’s probably what would make him a good coach…You get a serious respect for the idea of the minor leagues. I wanted to grab the high school kids thinking of leaving and say, go to college, stay off that bus for as long as you can! And there’s that other thing, this psychological aspect where it’s both for the first time they may have to sit on a bench, and for the first time, the guy on the bench next to them might not be happy you just hit a home run. I have a respect for that mental battle. You forget the guys you are most competing with are on that bus with you.”
“…I said to Ron when we started, “Let’s go to the batting cage.” And Ron said, “No, I don’t have to do that with you because that’ll just give you the high ground to say to anybody that ‘Kevin did it.’ ” Like that would give me an edge. I love acting in (sports) movies because I love playing for a coach, and there’s a sense that a good director is just that, and if they are good, you feel like you’d do anything for them.” (espn.com)
About Writer and Director Ron Shelton
Shelton, who grew up in Santa Barbara, California, and became a basketball and baseball star at nearby Westmont College, spent five years in the Orioles organization. In 1967, his first season in the minors, the aspiring infielder was sent 2,500 miles from home to rookie ball in Bluefield, West Virginia. The kid from the picturesque Central Coast felt like an alien in the distant Appalachian League. But he was playing a game for a (profoundly modest) living. It was exhilarating. “It’s intense in the sense that you’re absolutely on edge every moment,” Shelton said. “Because every at-bat, every play, is recorded forever. … You’re fighting to beat out the guy ahead of you and to make sure the guy behind you doesn’t beat you out. So everybody’s a little frightened and very thrilled all at the same time. You never feel more alive.” For Shelton, that short period of his life was disproportionately formative. “It’s a less dramatic version of guys who go to war,” he said. On the road, in need of a way to escape the boredom of hotels and the summer heat, he went to the movies. During his stay in the Texas League, he caught a showing of Brian De Palma’s “Hi, Mom!”…While falling in love with cinema, Shelton was rising through the talent-loaded Baltimore system. In 1970, he made it to Triple-A Rochester. The next season, his last, he hit .260. When Major League Baseball went on strike in 1972, he figured it was time to quit. “There was a lot of thought that the season would be canceled,” Shelton said. The work stoppage lasted only until mid-April, but he’d resolved to move on.
Soon Shelton earned a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Arizona, but struggled to land a job teaching painting and sculpture. For about 10 years, he painted houses and worked as a carpenter. “A lot of people say they dug ditches as kind of a metaphor,” Shelton said. “I actually dug the ditches.” In his spare time, he started writing screenplays. Most of them ended up in the trash. “I knew they weren’t good enough,” Shelton said. Eventually, Shelton began selling scripts. He co-wrote “Under Fire” (1983), a Nicaraguan Revolution–set thriller starring Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman, and penned “The Best of Times” (1986), starring Robin Williams and Kurt Russell as former high school football teammates trying to make up for past failures. On both, Shelton served as a second-unit director. He felt like a prospect again. “I couldn’t believe they were gonna pay me to do what I like and what I was good at,” Shelton said. But he was still waiting for his call-up to the majors. “I thought if I was gonna have a shot as a director,” he said, “I’m gonna have to write something that everybody else can say, ‘Well, whatever we think of Shelton, certainly nobody in the world knows more about the subject.’” If there was a subject Shelton was an expert in, it was baseball. The process of trying to make it to the big leagues fascinated him. After all, he said, “Fighting to get there is more interesting than being there.” And maybe more enthralling than that, he added, was watching a veteran player “fighting to hold on.” At first, Shelton pitched “Bull Durham” as “Lysistrata” in the minors. The ancient Greek comedy centers on the title character starting a movement to deny men sex in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. Producer Thom Mount, a Durham, North Carolina, native, was intrigued but wanted to hear more. “He said, ‘Well, what else you got?’” Shelton recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s a pitcher, a catcher, and a woman. And the woman’s sleeping with the wrong one of them, and she’s telling the story.’ He said, ‘Let’s go do it.’”…On June 15, 1988, “Bull Durham” premiered. Critics gushed over the movie, which grossed $50.9 million at the box office, more than five times its reported budget. For his screenplay, Shelton was nominated for an Academy Award. Sports Illustrated ranked it the greatest sports movie of all time…He’s gone on to write and direct several beloved classics of the genre, including basketball buddy comedy “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992), which pairs Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, and underdog story “Tin Cup” (1996), which stars Costner as a burned-out golfer who miraculously qualifies for the U.S. Open. These days, in between watching his teenage son’s baseball games…Shelton develops stories about athletes for the screen. (theringer.com)