Ron Shelton: The Church of Baseball (book review)

Arguably, the best sports films were directed by Ron Shelton. He is to sports films what Oliver Stone is to conspiracy thrillers and Quentin Tarantino is to gritty psychological thrillers. Shelton directed other non-sports films, crossing over into the weirdness of Stone/Tarantino. And yet, Shelton says that baseball is only secondary to Bull Durham.

“It’s really about a reckoning, people’s coming – a part of their lives where they have to make hard choices. Crash – as I say in the book, it’s about a guy who loves something more than it loves him back. And I think that’s universal and resonates with people outside of baseball.”

Ron Shelton, NPR interview

The Church of Baseball, The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, And A Hit, (2022) is Shelton’s story, his religious upbringing and how he became an athlete and followed his movie passion. After baseball, Shelton became a writer and eventually got to direct his own film scripts, including the classic Bull Durham.

Shelton and Kevin Costner on the Bill Durham set.

Bill Durham was his directorial debut, after two of his screenplays, Under Fire and The Best of Times, were directed by veteran director Roger Spottiswoode. These films could not be more different. Under Fire is a political drama about reporters covering a dangerous military coup. The Best of Times is a silly football story about trying to rewrite history. Both films prove that Shelton has a knack of character-driven stories.

According to Shelton, it was not just movies that cracked the rigorous religious bindings on his world, baseball played a roll. Television too. These secular activities certainly created some conflict in the young man, but fueled his spirit and creative need to explore the world and the human psyche. Characters in Shelton’s stories were not just good or bad, they were conflicted, flawed and mostly just trying to find their way, often humorously. Robin Williams in The Best of Times, Costner in Tin Cup, Nick Nolte in Blue Chips, Paul Newman in Blaze, Harrison Ford in Hollywood Homicide. Then, there are vigorously flawed characters like Kurt Russell in Dark Blue and Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb.

Shelton played baseball in college and was signed to play in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system. The players of Bull Durham had their roots in Shelton’s career. Shelton made it as high as triple A, which meant he was close to the Major Leagues, but close doesn’t count. Most minor league players never get that call-up and drift into new careers.

“All of Bull Durham was from my experience, although jokes like the “lollygagger bit” are made up–I always liked the word. Our manager, Bill Werle at Stockton, once threw all the bats we had in the shower because we had a no-hitter thrown at us that night. And yes, we did occasionally flood the field in order to get a night off.”

Ron Shelton interview with OldSchool80s

Shelton started with Bluefield, the Orioles’ class A team, with a rickety ballpark and hand-me-down uniforms, the basement of professional baseball. The Durham Bulls in Shelton’s film weren’t as bad, but not by much. Not all minor league baseball teams played in old ballparks, but by comparison to Major League Baseball, minor leaguers lived a spartan existence. Shelton’s minor league days were two decades before the Bull Durham story taking place, when playing in the backwater of professional baseball really was tough, but extremely colorful.

Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner.

The Church of Baseball is a fun read on many levels. If you enjoyed Bull Durham, Shelton talks through his writing and making of the film. It is easy to see the threads of his experiences fall into the script. If you are fascinated by how a classic film is born, Shelton steps through his writing process, careful to point out the pitfalls of screenwriting. And finally, if you enjoy a fun read from a talented storyteller, this book will delight you.

Bill Durham was a struggle to get a green light (a confirmed production deal). Shelton had an idea, but no script. He had never directed, only serving as a second unit director. His two filmed scripts had been box office duds. But this story idea, was personal and it leaped from his imagination to the page.

“Thom Mount greeted me warmly and seemed to like the five-word pitch. Then he asked understandably, ‘Do you have any more to the story?’ I did. Kind of. I told him there was a pitcher and a catcher and a woman, and she’s sleeping with the wrong one. Then, remembering that my wife had always encouraged me to write a baseball story from the woman’s point of view, I added, ‘And the woman tells the story.’ He bought it. It would never happen today. He knew Lysistrata and he knew the infield-fly rule- that’s a small group to find in Hollywood- and he owned a piece of the Durham Bulls baseball team in the Carolina League.”

Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball

Producer Mount owned a piece of the Durham Bulls, the minor league team used in the film. Shelton’s budget was so modest that he couldn’t afford a Hollywood location scout, so he and a local found the locations.

“The desperate look and feel of this southern town, with its ancient, crumbling ballpark and shuttered businesses, suggested the perfect background in which to set a story in the minor leagues where young athletes’ dreams similarly crumble and are boarded up.”

Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball

Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Bull Durham:

1. The working title was A Player to be Named Later, a title Shelton loved, but a bit cryptic for non-baseball fanatics.

2. Kevin Costner insisted on auditioning for the film even though he was on the cusp of becoming a superstar.

3. It was Costner’s rising star power that got the film a studio deal, every studio had passed on it at least once.

4. Shelton came within days of losing the right to Costner’s availability, and losing the right to shop the script for a deal. Had that happened, Bull Durham wouldn’t have happened.

5. The dialogue in the scene where there is an impromptu team meeting on the pitchers mound, that gets the coach (Robert Wahl) involved to help settle what wedding gift to get Millie and Jimmy. Audiences loved this scene, but studio execs kept insisting it had to be cut.

6. Catchers really do tell batters what pitch is coming. Hall of Famer Johnny Bench said so.

7. Susan Sarandon wasn’t on the list for Annie and she even offered to pay her way from Italy to audition. They turned her down. She blew into L.A. and captivated the filmmakers. Still, well into filming, Shelton said executives weren’t sold on her, and Tim Robbins. Sarandon’s Annie was too old for young Nuke LaLoosh, even though they were falling in love in real life.

8. The ballpark lights, even after a heavy-duty cleaning were still too dim to register on the lighting meter. A lot of the baseball happens at night, it’s a wonder ballplayers could find the ball under those lights.

9. Anthony Michael Hall was almost Nuke LaLoosh, but he failed to prepare for the read-through – twice. Even after filming began, unnamed studio execs were still pushing for Hall. Tim Robbins was Nuke.

10. There was a real Crash Davis. Lawrence “Crash” Davis actually played for the Durham Bulls in the 1940s. The film uses his name, but is not about him.

11. (Bonus) The film tested only average at several previews. Less than 20 percent of the audience said they would recommend it, yet that’s how the film succeeded. Test audiences laughed and applauded, yet their ratings did not say “hit”. The film’s gross went up each week, the opposite of what usually happens, and it stayed in release for months.

Thanks for reading to the bottom. Shelton used a bunch of songs in the film from Edith Piaf to Dr. John to The Smithereens to John Fogerty. For the incidental music and musical cues, Shelton hired composer Michael Convertino. Shelton admitted loving the melancholy, haunting pieces that Convertino created for the film, but gradually trimmed what he used. What Convertino music that did make the film is beautiful and is a counterpoint to the songs. Here is one.

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