The Best Baseball Movie Ever? Bull Durham

25 years ago this month, Ron Shelton's film entertainingly upended the conventions of how Hollywood portrays sports—which, Shelton says, was entirely the idea.
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Ron Shelton is one of those rare people who will leave the world having made it a substantially different place than he found it. Before Shelton, Hollywood films with sports themes fit into a few strict categories: inspirational tear jerkers (Pride of the Yankees, Brian's Song, Knute Rockne, All American), whimsical (Angels in the Outfield, Heaven Can Wait, Somebody Up There Likes Me) or geared for the preteen market (Bad News Bears, and later, The Mighty Ducks). Rare exceptions, such as Ted Kotcheff's North Dallas Forty, were made for an adult audience but failed to find one at the theatres.

Bull Durham, released 25 years ago this month, not only changed the nature of sports films, it changed the way we look at and talk about sports. Writer/director Shelton, a former minor league ballplayer in the Baltimore Orioles farm system, eschewed the glitz of big-time professional sports for a story about an ordinary man with modest talent. Bull Durham, in the words of Bob Costas, "gave us the romance of baseball without the violins."

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America," wrote Jacques Barzun, "had better learn baseball." In turn, those who know the heart and mind of baseball would be well advised to see Bull Durham.

The film began as a script called "A Player to Be Named Later," "A great title for a novel, but not something that works for a movie," Shelton now says. Made for between $8 and $9 million and shot in a little more than eight weeks with what Shelton calls "close to genuine creative freedom," Bull Durham achieved the status of an instant classic, which it has never relinquished. Critics loved it, and it was one of the year's biggest box-office successes: In the U.S. alone it grossed more than seven times its cost.

The first feature film about life in baseball's minor leagues, it put numerous phrases, including "The Show" (minor-league slang for the big leagues), "The Church of Baseball," and "candlesticks" into the national lexicon. The latter was the punch line to the famous conversation on the mound among Tim Robbins's dim-witted fireballing pitcher Nuke LaLoosh, Kevin Costner's jaded journeyman catcher Crash Davis, the team's infield, and their befuddled pitching coach, Larry, played by Robert Wuhl. The biggest problem confronting the players, who are getting clobbered in the game, is what to get a teammate for a wedding present. "Candlesticks always make a nice gift," says Wuhl as he walks away.

At the time of the film's release, Shelton says, some baseball writers questioned his version of life in the minors. "What a lot of people said was unrealistic about Bull Durham was exactly what was most real," he recalls. "When I was playing, the conversations we on the mound during time-outs weren't always about baseball. We'd take time to argue about who was going to win the welterweight championship fight or what was the best steakhouse in the town were in, or, yes, what was a good wedding present for a teammate."

"And sometimes someone would call a time-out just to see if anyone else knew the name of a girl sitting in the stands."

"Didn't you ever talk about baseball?" I wanted to know.

"Sure, we talked baseball for hours at a time. But that was on those endless bus rides from town to town."

Perhaps the one far-fetched element of the story is the character of Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in perhaps the signature role of her career. Annie is the ultimate baseball groupie: Every year she takes in promising minor league player and guides him through the vicissitudes of life in the minor leagues and preparations for the bigs.

In one of Shelton's best monologues, Annie explains herself, "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring... which makes it like sex."

But there was a deeper reason behind that one implausibility, according to Shelton.

"I was always told that sports movies in general and baseball movies are box office position," he says. "That didn't make any sense to me. Figured some of them must be making money or why would they keep making them?"

"The fault I found with most baseball movies, with most sports movies, is that they were invariably about 'The Big Game.' Any professional athlete can tell you that he was never about winning The Big Game. There was always another game to play. Essentially, I tried to add two new ingredients to the baseball film: sex and the idea that life didn't simply build up to one big game."

"The fault I found with most baseball movies, with most sports movies, is that they were invariably about 'The Big Game,'" Shelton says. "Any professional athlete can tell you that he was never about winning The Big Game."

Instead, Shelton believes in what he calls "The Defining Moment"--when, win or lose, an athlete reveals his essential character through some all-or-nothing risk. In White Men Can't Jump, the story of two pick-up basketball players portrayed by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, the defining moment might be when they realize the need to put aside their personal feelings to succeed in their game. In Tin Cup, a marginal golf pro, Roy McAvoy, decides that it's more important to try for the shot that will make him immortal than playing it safe and winning the U.S. Open. Those films, like Bull Durham, were box-office successes

In Play It to the Bone, Shelton's 1999 boxing film, the down-on-their-luck fighters played by Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas are friends who have to fight each other for a shot at the title. They must, for one, for about 45 minutes, forget they are pals. It's a great movie--one of the best boxing films ever made and too little seen.

"In my sports films I always tried to create characters that an average person could relate to," Shelton says. "Most of us will never get a chance to play or win that big game. But we can all take a big risk that proves to us something about ourselves."

"I could have written the scripts to put most of my characters in any number of life situations," he adds. "I chose sports because sports is more fun than life."

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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