New book offers ‘Bull Durham’ fans a behind-the-scenes recap

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 6, 2022

By Douglass K. Daniel

Associated Press

Former minor-league ballplayer Ron Shelton has written and directed a host of sports-themed movies, but it’s doubtful anyone has told him they’ve named their children after the characters in “Tin Cup” or “White Men Can’t Jump” or even “Cobb.”

“Bull Durham”? That’s different. A couple once introduced Shelton to their young sons, Crash and Nuke. That might be more impressive than the Sports Illustrated declaration in 2003 that the 1988 comedy starring Kevin Costner was the best sports movie ever.

What’s really impressive, once you read Shelton’s breezy behind-the-scenes recap, “The Church of Baseball,” is that “Bull Durham” didn’t end up in the direct-to-video minor leagues or just sent to the showers. Initially, too many people had too little faith in the movie and the man behind it.

There were conflicts over the casting of the leads, Costner as Crash, Susan Sarandon as Annie, and Tim Robbins as Nuke. Though Costner’s star was just emerging, none was seen as box office draws. Teen comedy veteran Anthony Michael Hall was considered a better choice as the pitching phenom completing the love triangle between Crash and Annie. However, all three — Costner, Sarandon and Robbins —were destined to win Oscars in standout careers.

And there was conflict over Shelton himself, some executives thinking the first-time director wasn’t up to the task. Somehow he managed to keep so many cooks with so many thoughts from spoiling his broth before it was even in the pot.

Dissension continued throughout shooting. At one point some people decided that the scene on the mound in which the teammates talk about anything but Nuke’s erratic pitching — “Candlesticks always make a nice gift” — should be cut. But test audiences and future fans would judge it the movie’s funniest moment. Shelton credits actor Robert Wuhl for the line, just one example of how the film was a team effort and Shelton generous in sharing the credit.

At the heart of “The Church of Baseball” isn’t the filmmaking or the fighting with the studio or even the insider’s view of baseball. It’s the creative process. Unlike most making-of books, many pages are devoted to how Shelton conceived the characters, developed a framework for a movie, sold a studio on it, then wrote and rewrote and rewrote the script. And the creativity continued during the actual filming, the editing, the music, the costumes and all the other stuff that goes into making a movie. Fortunately, creativity can be pretty funny as well as pretty interesting, and “The Church of Baseball” is consistently both.

Sure, let’s go to another baseball analogy: Making “Bull Durham” was like fielding a squirrelly ground ball off the end of the bat at the edge of the infield grass — a play Shelton says looks easy but is actually hard to do. Fans of baseball and the movies are glad he didn’t botch it.

“The Church of Baseball: The Making of ‘Bull Durham’: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings and a Hit” by Ron Shelton (Knopf)