“I prefer metaphysics to theology,” says the voice of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) as she puts on her lipstick. “See, there’s no guilt in baseball. And, it’s never boring. Which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career.” Annie walks to the baseball diamond in downtown Durham, where a rookie sensation named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is set to make his professional pitching debut. Exhibiting “a million dollar arm and a five cent head,” LaLoosh strikes out 18, walks 18 and beans the Bulls mascot twice. In an attempt to mature their wild prospect, the organization buys out the Triple A contract of journeyman catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), busting him back down to the bus leagues so he can mentor LaLoosh.
Unable to decide who she wants to make her project for the season, Annie invites Crash and LaLoosh – whom she nicknames “Nuke” – back to her place. Despite Annie’s agility juggling quantum physics and sex, Crash walks out on her. “After twelve years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out.” Annie tries to groom Nuke into a major league pitcher by working on his mind in the bedroom, while on the field, Crash attempts to instill in the kid respect for their craft. The veteran ultimately earns the respect of his pupil by revealing he spent 21 days in the major leagues once, “The hotels all have room service. The women all have long legs and brains.” Nuke strings together a winning streak, which Crash urges him to honor by not sleeping with Annie until he loses again. Though infuriated at first, this gives Annie time to get better acquainted with Crash.
Ron Shelton spent his professional baseball career in the Baltimore Orioles farm system – mostly at second base – from 1967 to 1971. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers, but with spring training cancelled due to a player’s strike, Shelton began looking for another line of work. He earned a fine arts degree at the University of Arizona and hoping to become a sculptor, settled in Los Angeles. By 1980, Shelton was writing screenplays for a living. Under Fire and The Best of Times – both directed by Roger Spottiswoode – opened in 1983 and 1986. Having directed second unit on each film, Shelton decided he was ready to become a director. He began to rework a script he’d written in 1979 titled The Player To Be Named Later, based on his five years riding buses in the minor leagues.
Actor Kurt Russell, who’d also spent the early 1970s as a Double A second baseman – with the California Angels – was one of the people Shelton approached for input. Russell recalls, “The great thing about baseball, I said to him, is baseball is the only sport played by men for women. All other sports are played by men for men, that I know of. Man, team sports. Because baseball players, we’d just as soon have 50,000 women in the stands. We couldn’t care less if there was a guy there … That’s what they’re about. And Ron wrote it from – which in that regard was the point of view that you really need to understand baseball – the point of view of the woman who is with the ballplayer. That’s the point of view to write a baseball story from, which he did, which is why Bull Durham I think is one of the best made.”
Shelton’s research took him through North Carolina. He recalls, “I wanted to see if things had changed in the minor leagues since I had played because in the major leagues they had changed dramatically. Big money had entered the big leagues and players who used to be very accessible major leaguers were now becoming prima donnas in many cases. We can all remember when ballplayers were more like us, then they became rock stars and unapproachable. But I discovered the minor leagues had not changed a bit. They were still close access to the stands and guys sending notes into the stands, guys hanging on for dear life for their careers.” Wondering how he would tell a story about the minor leagues, Shelton imagined it being narrated by a woman. He started with the line, “I believe in the church of baseball.”
Eight weeks after returning from the road, Shelton had a new version of The Player To Be Named Later. “Every single studio turned it down twice. They kept saying, ‘Nobody cares about baseball. Women will hate it.’ I kept saying, ‘It ain’t about baseball.’” Being a first time director did not endear Shelton to the studios, but his witty, sophisticated, character driven script got the attention of Kevin Costner, who was mulling an offer to star in the football melodrama Everybody’s All American. Costner instead committed to Shelton’s project, but could only give him 30 days to lock down financing. On Day 29, Shelton sent the script to Orion Pictures’ New York office. The West Coast executives had passed, but a studio executive named Bill Bernstein read it on a Thursday and by three o’clock the next day – Day 30 – greenlit Bull Durham.
Susan Sarandon had already won the part of Annie Savoy. For Nuke LaLoosh, the studio suggested Anthony Michael Hall. Costner and Sarandon lobbied for Tim Robbins, an actor who’d only been featured prominently in one movie, and that had been Howard the Duck. Shelton recalls, “I had to fight very hard for the casting of Tim because of his one credit and the studio said that no one would believe that a woman of Susan Sarandon’s class would ever get involved with somebody like Tim and of course, they now have three children together.” Unable to film in ballparks while their seasons were in swing, Shelton was given five weeks to be ready to shoot. In October 1987, on a budget of $7.5 million, Bull Durham was filming in Durham Athletic Park, home to the Durham Bulls.
Shelton recalls, “The Durham Bulls were a famous old minor league team that had been around forever. Bull Durham Tobacco was made in that town and it was a chewing tobacco as well as a rolling tobacco. And I chose Durham because of the look of the town, the closeness of the warehouses surrounding the ballpark, that southern, urban feel to it. Also for practical reasons; all the other minor league teams were very close and you could ride to them.” Because the stadium grass was already changing color, it had to be painted green. To hide the fact that the surrounding trees were also turning brown in what was supposed to be a summer movie, much of the baseball was played at night, but it was so cold, the breath of the actors was clearly visible.
Shelton received little support from the studio. “While I was filming it, they hated it. They fired my cinematographer and did all kinds of obnoxious things. By the time I screened it for them, I thought they were going to kill me. Then they saw it and said, ‘This thing is great! We had no idea!”’ Opening June 1988, many critics agreed. Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert gave Bull Durham two enthusiastic thumbs up. Ebert: “What I felt as I watched this movie was – there have been so many baseball movies that have been so corny, especially if you love the game of baseball – this movie feels authentic, smells authentic and plays authentically and it is genuinely a funny, funny movie.” Siskel: “They say everybody has one story to tell and to write what you know about? This guy Shelton sure did it.” The film went on to gross $50.8 million at the U.S. box office.
In 2001, Sports Illustrated ranked Bull Durham #1 on its list of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time. Commenting on the film’s reception, Shelton stated, “I think that it might be first sports film ever made by a guy who actually played as opposed to sat in the stands. I think as a player you see the game differently. As a kid I grew up hating sports movies and I thought if I ever get to make one, I’ll at least make one that I like. What I tried to do was concentrate on the moments between the big plays and leave the big plays for television. I think that’s why perhaps people responded to that movie and my other sports movies; they get to see the drama that they can never see on television.”
While the film’s status among sports lovers would probably be enough to cement this as a modern classic, what makes it worth seeking out is that even if you’re no fan of baseball, and share even less enthusiasm for Kevin Costner, it’s impossible to miss how rich Bull Durham is in sophistication and sensuality, two qualities that have become about as rare in Hollywood as the no hitter is in baseball. From the opening line of dialogue, Ron Shelton is clearly making a film for adults by adults, one that goes somewhat over the top in its monologues and doesn’t necessarily adhere to reality when it comes to relationships, but does deal with the thoughts and ideas of grown folk in some of the sharpest, most hilarious dialogue written for the screen in 20 years.
What elevates Bull Durham way above the jokey and hokey sports movies is that Ron Shelton seems far more interested in human desire and creativity than his sporting knowledge, even while handling both aspects of his script masterfully. This is likely the last film we’ll see where a redhead ties her man up in bed and while he’s immobile, reads Walt Whitman to him. The film would have been a minor masterpiece with Kurt Russell as Crash Davis, but Costner is decent here, handling the brooding mystique, subtle goofiness and shorter line readings (Crash declaring, “I like this song,” as Ike & Tina Turner play on a jukebox). The supporting cast is an A+ all the way down the line, notably Tim Robbins as the dopey phenom and the late Trey Wilson as the baseball manager burdened with being too much of a nice guy.
Ryan Cracknell at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “As in the other sports-themed films he wrote and directed, Ron Shelton pays keen attention to dialogue. It’s not Tarantino slick, but instead a good blend of street snap and clever twang. This goes a long way in establishing the film’s greatest strength, its characters. They’re a motley cast of dreamers, realists and those who are just hanging on. While few in real life get the chance to play professional baseball at any level, the struggles of the various Bulls players still seem like everyone’s struggles, and they seem timeless. There isn’t a character in Bull Durham that doesn’t remind you of someone you know.”
Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “Bull Durham is a hilarious, sweet and sexy film that uses the talent of its three stars to their best advantage. They work so well together, it’s like a comic ballet … The screenplay is sharp, witty and sexy. The baseball sequences a joy to watch. The film crackles with unrestrained energy and unresolved attraction. It’s rare to find a film made for adults that’s funny, romantic and something both men and women can enjoy. Even though it’s about baseball, it’s anything but boring.”