Ron Shelton on Making Bull Durham, Getting Threatened by Thomas Pynchon, and Why Baseball is the Most Literary Sport
Three Decades Later, the Writer and Director Looks Back at How It All Got Started
It’s hard to say what Bull Durham, the 1988 film, is best remembered for. It was the movie that put minor league baseball eccentricity on the map, sure, and it also helped launch Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins into the upper echelons of Hollywood.
It has that scene where players and coach gather at the mound to discuss various anxieties, hang-ups, and what to get a recently engaged teammate (“candlesticks always make a nice gift”). Or maybe you’re partial to the big speech, the one that was apparently written to nab a star and did the job, giving Costner a chance to talk about the sweet spot of a bat, the small of a woman’s back and “long, slow, deep, soft wet kisses”—the kind of speech that lets you know, by God, this is a movie and those are stars on the screen.
All of those are good and valid choices but personally, I’ve always thought of Bull Durham as the seminal humanist sports movie. A genre I’ve admittedly invented out of thin air and which contains, roughly speaking, three exuberant movies about fallen souls on the lookout for companionship—Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup—all written and directed by the same man, Ron Shelton, the onetime minor league ballplayer turned filmmaker.
Shelton has now, some thirty-odd years later, decided to put down his memories of that seminal movie: how it started, who helped it along, who got in the way, who could play ball, who was a star, and most of all, how a movie gets made, and how you write the thing.
That is, The Church of Baseball is an insightful and deeply felt book about the making of the narratives that shape our lives. It has something in common with William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, that heady mix of anecdote, manifesto, and practitioner’s guide. Shelton is a generous conversationalist, something that’s always infused his work and gives the new book its special charm.
I caught up with him in the weeks before the book’s release to discuss the making of Bull Durham, driving around minor league towns, playing pickup basketball, and why Thomas Pynchon got cut from the movie.
Dwyer Murphy: In The Church of Baseball, you write, “The biggest mistake a sports movie can make is to have too much sports in it.” I always thought of Bull Durham as a romance first and a sports movie second. A romance between characters. A story about people with romantic ideals moving through the world. How about you: you made the movie, how would you characterize it?
Ron Shelton: I’ve spent thirty years trying to figure out the movie and why it works. Some of it, I was unconscious of while we were making it. For example, what is Crash Davis about? He’s a man who loves something more than it loves him back. That’s a universal thing that makes the movie last. We’ve all loved something more than it loves us back. And Annie Savoy is a woman at an equal crisis point in her life. She’s invented a game around boys and young men, something that’s unsustainable, too. So they’re both at this crisis. If they stop doing what they love, they’ll have to grow up. That’s the risk that it takes them an hour and forty-eight minutes to work through.
DM: Having Annie as the narrator was a fascinating choice. Was that the plan from the outset or something that developed with the movie?
RS: That was the conceit, that a woman would be our guide into the world, and we would discover who she is along the way. I started by dictating a monologue on a microdisc as I was driving the back roads of the Carolina league. I was living in an apartment, my marriage was on the rocks, and I was deciding if minor league baseball was still a compelling place to set a drama. And as I drove around from town to town, I discovered it was as rich as I remembered.I value conversation as part of sports, especially baseball. There’s great writing about boxing, but there’s more great writing about baseball.
I wondered, who is this woman and what does she sound like? I dictated the opening on the back roads between Durham and Asheville. I went right by Black Mountain College, where all these great artists had once taught. And I dictated that first quatrain, “I believe in the church of baseball. I’ve worshiped all the major religions, as well as the minor ones…”
About an hour later, I wrote another couple paragraphs. By the time I got to Asheville, I had that in my briefcase. About a month or two later, when I was back in LA, I pulled it out and typed it up and gave her the name Annie. That became the opening two pages of the script, and I just kept writing. She’s our guide. In the end it takes us all the way to her quoting Walt Whitman and Casey Stengel. It’s all about the voice.
DM: You resist outlining while you’re writing. You’re more concerned with following the tonal shifts?
RS: If I’m writing for a paycheck, if I’m a hired gun, or it’s an idea that I’ve sold the financing on through the studio, I’m forced to deliver more of an outline that I’d like to, because they’d like to know what the hell they’re buying. So I always try to make it as loose as possible. If I’m writing on spec, I don’t have an outline.
I’m doing one now about Ted Williams, based on the great Dick Cramer book, and in that case I’m writing with my buddy, and all we know going in is the first act move, the second act move, the third act move, and where are we going: Ted faces mortality for the first time… maybe. What are the conflicts? What do they want? We have a book to go on, but if I had to outline this for a studio or a network, it would be dull and boring. The fact that we just have two stones across the river allows us to invent as we go. I much prefer to work like that.
DM: You mentioned that you were playing pick-up basketball three times a week while writing Bull Durham. Is that part of the writing for you? You need an athletic outlet?
RS: Well, it isn’t anymore, because I was getting hurt playing against younger guys. I played basketball in high school and college as well as baseball, so basketball is important to me. It’s a great way to stay in shape, and it’s better than therapy. It was therapy, really.
After the success of Bull Durham, I kept playing. Nobody knew who I was. I was just pretty good for a forty year old white guy. Then, when I wrote White Men Can’t Jump, we had a big open call, and I had games going. You had to show me you could play before you read lines. Basically, I just threw the basketball out there, and the guys started playing. Most of them didn’t know I was the one who was going to hire them. They just played. They’re great guys. They still call and check up on me. I go to see them, or we have lunch. It’s been another family to me, all those guys.
DM: In the book, you wade into a topic I’ve always enjoyed debating with friends: which sport has produced the best writing? It usually comes down to boxing versus baseball. You drew a distinction that I found interesting. You argue that baseball is inherently conversational, and that’s reflected in the literature, and in our collective feeling about the sport.
RS: I value conversation as part of sports, especially baseball. There’s great writing about boxing, but there’s more great writing about baseball. The fact that there’s a game every day matters. It’s not one or two a week. We live with baseball more. Why baseball is part of the America psyche, that’s fascinating. Why did Walt Whitman fall in love with baseball? I think it’s the human scale of it. Guys talk to each other. They argue as the game goes on. There’s something very civilized and unrushed about it. And for the fans, there are these loyalties involved. You’re a Red Sox fan, right? But you’re from New York. How did that happen?
DM: Living in New York for fifteen years, I think of myself as a New Yorker. But I’m from Massachusetts. You hang onto the sports wherever you go.
RS: Exactly, you take them with you. When I grew up, you were either a Ford family or a Chevy family. You were a Yankee fan or a Dodger fan. Even on the west coast, we were Dodger fans, because my parents worshiped Jackie Robinson and my mom went to high school with him. The truth is, to this day I hate the Yankees. Why? Because my parents hated the Yankees. It makes no sense. It’s just baked into who we are. It connects us. There’s a continuity to it that’s soothing.We got a notification from a lawyer representing Pynchon threatening us, saying we were defaming him. I was shocked.
And as to the writers who’ve taken on baseball—Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Dick Cramer… Those guys were competitive, too. They wanted to best each other. They were like athletes.
DM: My father got me into books through those guys. I was a kid and I would read those shitty little hagiographies they would make about players. Just devour them. So my dad dropped some Halberstam and Roger Kahn at the end of the shelf and knew I would read those, too.
RS: Those biographies, you knew even when you were young that they were kinda bullshit. But it was the stuff that wasn’t in the books that interested me. I knew there were human qualities there.
DM: There isn’t as much basketball literature. You’ve got Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game and a few others. For basketball fiction, for me, White Men Can’t Jump might be the best.
RS: Well, thank you. That was the strangest piece of writing ever. I had no outline. I just started writing. I wrote thirty seven pages in a day. I’m not joking. I’ve never done that since. Who counts pages a day, anyway? I submitted those thirty seven pages to Joe Roth who was the head of Fox. I had a deal I was about to make there and I knew he was a basketball fan. I told him I wasn’t sure about it, but he said, “let’s get going, I want to make it.” Later, I told my assistant, they love it, they wanna make it, but I have no clue what’s on page thirty-eight.
I walked the streets of Hollywood for two weeks trying to figure out what was next. Then I went and wrote twenty-two pages. Then, another two weeks of saying I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing. It came in these great chunks.
DM: So that’s your follow-up book. The Church of Basketball: I Have No Idea What the Fuck I’m Doing. This is for a literary magazine, so I want to ask about Crash Davis’ big monologue. His famous “I believe” speech. Am I understanding right that you wrote that in one go, and nothing changed except you switched the reference (the writer whose work Crash thinks is overrated) from Thomas Pynchon to Susan Sontag? Can that be right?
RS: I typed that speech as fast as I could type. I thought it was bullshit, but it would get people’s attention. I honestly didn’t even think it would survive the editing. Kevin said it in one take. He wanted another and I said “nope, we’re moving on.” It stayed in the movie and it turned out to be the thing everyone talked about. But we can get into the change from Pynchon to Sontag, if you really want to hear about it.
DM: I absolutely do.
Shelton: Well, my friends and I used to like to argue about Thomas Pynchon. Some loved him, some hated him. Literary discussions over coffee or drinks late at night. I thought, what if Annie Savoy loves Pynchon and Crash Davis hates Pynchon, and they get into arguments about him? Then we see them each re-reading Pynchon, and by the end we see them switch views on his work, because they’re falling in love. I cut that out of the script. It was too much, we didn’t need it. But the Pynchon reference was in the speech until the day we were shooting it.
Then, we got a notification from a lawyer representing Pynchon threatening us, saying we were defaming him. I was shocked, because (a) how did the lawyer find the script? (b) we weren’t defaming him, it was going to turn into an argument with the characters switching sides; and (c) I thought Pynchon had a sense of humor, because he always had Professor Irwin Corey accept his awards, which I felt was really cool.
But, rather than deal with lawyers, we started figuring out who we could plug in there. Sontag had just written a not very good novel that I had read. Somehow or another, she got put in there. And she wasn’t the right person. She was primarily an essayist, so it came off as a cheap shot against Sontag. It wasn’t intended to be. I always felt bad about that.