For me, it’s always been Crash Davis’s ”I believe” speech. Its final exchange, with his clinching “good night,” followed by Annie Savoy’s astonished, “Oh my,” is movie perfection. If “Bull Durham” hadn’t hooked me already (though trust me, it had) that scene clinched it.
The speech traveled with me to college — the promotional poster with a G-rated version of it printed alongside Kevin Costner’s Crash hanging on my dorm room wall. It’s traveled with me in the decades since, recited from memory, replayed on loop, always rising from the corners of my baseball-loving brain.
If you know, you know.
“Bull Durham,” the best baseball movie of them all, is stacked with countless such favorite scenes. For some, it’s the meeting on the mound, where Larry Hockett reminds us “candlesticks always make a nice 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 perhaps it’s the batting cage scene, the bar fight, the garter belt, or the bus ride. I could go on and on. And on.
The common denominator isn’t just that they are ostensibly about baseball, set as they are against the story of a no-name minor league team in a dot on the Southern American map. It’s how the movie pulled the curtain back on aspects of baseball the average fan had never seen before, to the humans behind the uniforms, the ones chasing their dreams, scratching for livelihoods, and yes, looking for love. How really, it was barely about baseball at all.
That, as it turns out, was Ron Shelton’s intention. In Shelton’s wonderfully engrossing 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 surprise 1988 hit writes, “the biggest mistake a sports movie can make is to have too much sports in it.” He expounded on that thought in a phone call this past week.
“A movie set against the world of sports should not try to compete with television,” Shelton said. “You cannot do what television does with 20 cameras, but you can do everything a television camera can’t do. You can go in the locker room where cameras can’t go. You can go on the bus trip, to the bar, go home with the man and the women, get inside their heads when they’re at home plate or on the mound.
“So the goal is to not compete with television. You’ll get killed if you try. But you can live where television can’t 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 with no big game, no dramatic victory, no, as Shelton admits, “real plot,” resonates as much today as it did 34 years ago.
Equal parts memoir and moviemaking master class with a delightful dose of oral history thrown in, the book is all parts fantastic, pulling that curtain back not only on baseball, but on the artist’s process, too, how Shelton fought for everything from the casting of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (the recurring appearance of Anthony Michael Hall as a once-and-future Nuke is reason enough to read the book) to the bare-knuckle fight to keep that unforgettable meeting on the mound off the cutting room floor (and how an improv by actor Robert Wuhl made the scene even better.)
But it starts with the baseball, and in getting that right, Shelton made everything else work. On the field, it’s real. The routine pop fly caught in foul territory, the whip-fast double play turned by the infield, the sly revelation by Crash of what pitch is coming, the simmering impatience of a minor league manager trying to corral a bunch of kids.
Out of their mouths, it’s real, too, the talk of getting to the show, of hitting a ground ball with eyes, or getting one extra gork, flare, or dying quail a week.
That is the credit to Shelton, whose 1967-71 stretch in the Orioles’ minor league system earned his authenticity, whose ability to hold onto those experiences after he willingly walked away from the game (he didn’t want to be a real-life Crash Davis hanging on for too long) were awakened decades later and brought to such vivid life. The man dictated full-length 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 of these people because I have affection for them,” he said. “They’re 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 which was not anticipated. I’m fond of these people and don’t get tired of them. I hadn’t visited with them for 40-something years, but they came back quickly.”
He’d never made a movie before, but with a lifelong love affair with the movies, with an education informed by a similar love for literature, it mattered not.
He was a natural.
He would go on to make the sports-themed greats “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Tin Cup,” the latter reuniting him with Costner, who’d blossomed into a bona-fide movie star. But it was “Bull Durham” that started it all, rising to the top of a magical period of baseball movies that included “The Natural” (1984), “Eight Men Out” (1988), the second Costner classic “Field of Dreams” (1989), “Major League” (1989), and “A League of Their Own” (1992), another movie that sustains me.
It took us to places we’d never been, and now, Shelton has done it again. To all those suits who told him the movie wasn’t sexy enough, wasn’t funny enough, who threatened to shut it down before it ever got finished, thank goodness he fought. The finished product?