Ron Shelton remembers his movie ‘Bull Durham’ in new memoir ‘The Church of Baseball’ : NPR


Whenever someone asks what the greatest baseball movie of all time is, chances are you hear “Bull Durham.”


KEVIN COSTNER: (As Crash Davis) I was on the show for 21 days once – the best 21 days of my life. You know, you never handled your luggage in the show. Someone else is carrying your bags. It was great. You hit white balls to practice batting. Baseball fields are like cathedrals. The hotels all have room service. Women all have long legs and brains.

SIMON: Ron Shelton’s 1988 coming-of-age, middle-age romantic comedy film focused on a minor league baseball team – Kevin Costner, aging catcher Crash Davis, brought to tutor Nuke LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, the young phenom with a million dollar arm and a five cent head. They become the two points of a triangle with Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, the poetry fan who meets a new recruit every season. Ron Shelton, a former minor league player himself, of course wrote and directed the movie which I won’t diminish by calling it a classic. And he now has a memoir about his creation, “The Church Of Baseball.” Ron Shelton joins us now. Thank you very much for being with us.

RON SHELTON: Scott, I’m just happy to be here. I hope I can help the ball club.

SIMON: (Laughs) One of the great cliches that Crash Davis taught young Nuke LaLoosh to say that. Help us understand how hard it was to sell “Bull Durham” because producers often don’t hear, oh, a baseball movie – great. It will make millions.

SHELTON: Baseball movies are very difficult to get off the ground because there are no overseas sales for them. In the cinema market, you have to sell foreign tickets. And people say, well, Japan, but Japan only buys a movie after it’s a hit. Venezuela is not really a market. There, really – it has to work in the United States, otherwise it won’t work at all.

SIMON: Why did you place the story among the minor leaguers? Was it strategic?

SHELTON: Write what you know, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

SHELTON: I mean, it was my life. And I think it’s a lot more interesting to follow – to follow people who are trying to be in the spotlight than most of them once they’re in the spotlight. There’s just more drama, more heartbreak, more pathos in Class A prom than in the major leagues, staying in five-star hotels.

SIMON: Yeah. One of the downsides of making a compelling baseball movie – and you write about it in “The Church Of Baseball” – is that some of the best actors don’t look convincing when they really have to. do something on the ground.

SHELTON: No, I haven’t liked sports movies all my life for two reasons. First, it was clear that the actor could not act. And two, someone would always homer in the bottom of the ninth inning, usually with the bases loaded, to win the World Series, and that never happened.

SIMON: Well, it happened once – 1960, Bill Mazeroski. But go ahead. Yeah.

SHELTON: Yeah, it’s almost unheard of. Games end in short ground balls, like life – you know, a pop-up per second, game over. It was therefore very important for me to make a film about what life among the miners is really like, which is more like what life is like anywhere.

SIMON: Tell us about the audition process. Kevin Costner kept a glove in his car.

SHELTON: Well, Kevin was about to become a star. He hadn’t quite succeeded yet. But I heard he was a great athlete. And I met him, and he liked the script, and he said he wanted to do it. And I said, you have it. The game is up to you. And he says, but first I have to try for you. And I said, you already have the role. And he insisted we go out on Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles, where there’s a quarterback batting cage and mini-golf courses and arcades. And we went over there, and we played catch in the parking lot. And then we started putting quarters in the machine. And he hit the line drive with his right hand, then he hit the line drive with his left hand. And I went to a phone booth – because that was before there were any alternatives – and I called the studio and I said, hire this guy. He is incredible.

SIMON: Yeah. There is a Crash Davis – or was a Crash Davis out there in the world.

SHELTON: Yeah, I talk about it in the book. I actually find comfort in reading old record books for some reason. And before I wrote the script, I was looking at the Carolina League record book, which goes back 100 years, over 100 years now. And I saw that in 1947 or something, a guy named Crash Davis hit 50 doubles for the Durham Bulls. And I thought Crash Davis is the coolest name ever. I wish that was my name. And I hit a lot of doubles. He was the kind of baseball player I was. I was not a power hitter. And so I – it became my character’s name before I wrote it. And then on the first day of shooting, a guy named Crash Davis, the real Crash Davis, shows up. So not only had he not been gone long, but he still lived in Durham. He was beautifully dressed.

SIMON: Yeah, he was a real business executive, right?

SHELTON: And he had graduated from Duke who had played for Connie Mack in the majors, and then he had served in the war. I mean, this guy was a hero. And then because he was in his 30s he wanted to play a little more, so he played two or three more years for the Durham Bulls just because he loved it at Durham. And that’s where I found his name. And we became good friends. And he went on a speaking circuit afterwards called I’m the Real Crash Davis.

SIMON: Crash Davis gives a famous speech in the movie. And you write in this book when you write a screenplay, the importance of a good speech to attract a big name actor. Could you tell us about the ongoing reflection?

SHELTON: Well, it’s — it’s pretty mercenary and Machiavellian, but yeah, I mean, stars need good speeches, and they need words to say that they can relate to and know that ‘they can get out of the park. And I thought, I better give this guy a good speech right from the start. And I wrote the I Believe in Speech. And I wrote it as fast as I could. I won’t quote it here because it’s a family show, but…

SIMON: Well, I will. I will give the speech.

SHELTON: You can do it. And Kevin loved it. And I always thought it was a bit overdone, crushed, embarrassed. But we did it in one take, and he did it so casually that it didn’t stand out. He didn’t go to himself.

SIMON: I’d like to audition for you, Mr. Shelton.

SHELTON: Go ahead. Do you want to go to the batting cage, or what are we doing here?

SIMON: No, no, I’m going to do the Crash Davis speech.


SIMON: I believe in the soul, the – something I can’t say on the radio, the other thing I can’t say on the radio, a woman’s lower back, the dangling curveball , high fiber, good scotch, that Susan Sontag novels are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there should be a constitutional amendment banning AstroTurf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, opening presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve. And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Good night.

SHELTON: Hire this fabulous guy. We will go to the senior circuit and do it.

SIMON: (Laughs) That’s not exactly the answer I was looking for, but okay. Thanks. Is “Bull Durham” finally a baseball movie?

SHELTON: I think baseball is the bottom line. It’s really about a settling of scores, people coming – a part of their lives where they have to make tough choices. Crash – as I say in the book, this is about a guy who loves something more than he loves it back. And I think that’s universal and resonates with people outside of baseball.

SIMON: Yeah.

SHELTON: I think that’s why the movie can still work for people.

SIMON: Ron Shelton – his memoir, “The Church Of Baseball: The Making of ‘Bull Durham’: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, And A Hit” – thank you so much for being with us.

SHELTON: Thank you, Scott. My pleasure. And I feel sorry for the Cubs. I don’t know what else to say.

SIMON: Well, I’ve heard that for most of my life, except for 2016. But it’s a way of life. What can I tell you?

SHELTON: Yeah. I will continue to bring.

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Martha J. Finley