“Bull Durham,” the best baseball movie of them all, is packed with countless favorite scenes. For some, it’s the encounter on the mound, where Larry Hockett reminds us that “candlesticks always make a great gift”. For others, it’s Annie Savoy’s “Church of Baseball” monologue that introduces us to the magical corner of the baseball world. Maybe it’s Nuke LaLoosh’s stated desire to “announce his presence with authority,” or maybe it’s the batting cage scene, the bar fight, the garter belt, or the ride. by bus. I could go on and on. And on.
The common denominator isn’t just that they’re ostensibly about baseball, put as they are against the history of an unnamed minor league team in a spot on the South American map. That’s how the movie pulled back the curtain on aspects of baseball the average fan had never seen before, on the humans behind the uniforms, those who chase their dreams, scratch for a living and, yes, are looking for love. How really, it was barely about baseball at all.
Turns out that was Ron Shelton’s intention. In Shelton’s wonderfully gripping new book, “The Church of Baseball (The making of Bull Durham: Home runs, bad calls, crazy fights, big swings and a hit)”, the writer and director of the 1988 surprise hit writes, “The biggest mistake a sports movie can make is having too much sport in it. He explained that thought in a phone call last week.
“A movie set against the sports world shouldn’t try to compete with television,” Shelton said. “You can’t do what television does with 20 cameras, but you can do everything a television camera can’t do. You can go into the locker room where the cameras can’t go. You can take the bus trip, go to the bar, go home with the man and the women, get inside their head when they’re at home plate or on the mound.
“So the goal is not to compete with television. You will be killed if you try. But you can live where television cannot live at all.
In the book, the chance to sit down with these old friends is a reminder of why we fell so in love with them in the first place, why a baseball movie without a big game, without a dramatic win, no, as admitted Shelton’s “true intrigue” resonates as much today as it did 34 years ago.
Equal parts memoir and a masterclass in filmmaking with a delicious dose of oral history, the book is fantastic in every way, pulling that curtain back not just on baseball, but also on the artist’s process, how Shelton came to be. beaten for everything from casting Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (Anthony Michael Hall’s recurring appearance as the future Nuke is reason enough to read the book) to the bare-knuckle fight to keep that unforgettable reunion on the mound from the cutting room floor (and how an improvisation by actor Robert Wuhl made the scene even better.)
But it starts with baseball, and by doing it right, Shelton made everything else work. On the pitch, it’s real. The routine pop fly caught in fetid territory, the lightning-fast double play shot by the infield, the sneaky reveal of Crash on the upcoming field, the simmering impatience of a minor league manager trying to round up a group of players. ‘children.
From their mouths, it’s real too, the talk of going to the show, hitting a ground ball with your eyes, or getting one more gork, flare, or dying quail a week.
It’s credit to Shelton, whose 1967-71 streak in the Orioles minor league system earned him his authenticity, whose ability to retain those experiences after willingly stepping away from the game (he didn’t want to be a real Crash Davis hung too long) were awakened decades later and brought to such vivid life. The man dictated full monologues into a recorder while driving, and kept a note in his writing space that Crash would have loved: “Don’t think – Just write.”
“I could write a thousand pages about all these people because I have affection for them,” he said. “They are part of my DNA because of my life in baseball, meeting these archetypes, and also for the battle to make the movie and then the success of it that was not planned. I love these people and I never tire of them. I hadn’t visited them for about forty years, but they came back quickly.
He had never made a film before, but with a lifelong love affair with cinema, with an upbringing informed by a similar love for literature, it didn’t matter.
He was natural.
He would go on to do the big names in the sport “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Tin Cup”, the latter reuniting him with Costner, who had become a proper movie star. But it was “Bull Durham” that started it all, rising to the pinnacle of a magical era of baseball movies that included “The Natural” (1984), “Eight Men Out” (1988), the second classic of Costner “Field of Dreams”. (1989), “Major League” (1989) and “A League of Their Own” (1992), another film that supports me.
It took us places we had never been, and now Shelton has done it again. To all those costumes who told him the movie wasn’t sexy enough, wasn’t funny enough, who threatened to shut it down before it was finished, thank God he fought. The finished product?
Tara Sullivan is a columnist for The Globe. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.