Ron Shelton has always told the truth about baseball. Before a morning spring training game in Winter Haven, Florida, in the early 1970s, the Orioles farmhand noticed Red Sox All-Stars Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Smith in uniform, chatting. A nearby sportswriter suggested that they probably were discussing the intricacies of hitting a slider. Shelton wanted to smash the guy with a fungo bat. “Give me a break,” he recalled telling the beat man. “They’re talking about pussy!”
By then, Shelton was used to misconceptions of his daily existence. The high-minded authors fond of mythologizing America’s pastime tended to ignore, among many other not-so-uplifting aspects of the profession, the often crass ways ballplayers broke up the sheer monotony of a long season. “Most of those writers make me nuts,” Shelton recently told me, “because they’re not seeing the game I played.” The interesting part of sports, he believes, is what happens between dramatic on-field moments.
So when he broke into Hollywood a decade later, Shelton made a promise to himself. “If I got one shot to direct,” he remembered thinking, “I’ll make a sports movie I would like to see.” At that point, Shelton already had the idea for Bull Durham. Released 30 years ago this week, the romantic comedy tells the tale of aging career minor league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), rocket-armed phenom “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), and wise English professor Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who keeps the two in check.
The movie’s uniqueness stems from its conflicted feelings toward baseball. The characters, like Shelton himself, both love the game and curse how cruel it can be. This blend of devotion and irreverence led to the most honest on-screen portrayal of the sport ever made. He may not have been able to re-create the visuals of a World Series broadcast, but the director did manage to take us inside an athlete’s world.
“I cannot compete with television,” Shelton said. “They’ve got 20 cameras. I’ve got one, maybe two. But I can beat TV because I can put my cameras everywhere that those 20 can’t go. I can go on the bus, in the locker room, in the shower, inside their heads, inside the dugout.”
The filmmaker was equipped to plumb Crash’s mind because he once was Crash. Shelton, who grew up in Santa Barbara, California, and became a basketball and baseball star at nearby Westmont College, spent five years in the Orioles organization. In 1967, his first season in the minors, the aspiring infielder was sent 2,500 miles from home to rookie ball in Bluefield, West Virginia. The kid from the picturesque Central Coast felt like an alien in the distant Appalachian League. But he was playing a game for a (profoundly modest) living. It was exhilarating.
“It’s intense in the sense that you’re absolutely on edge every moment,” Shelton said. “Because every at-bat, every play, is recorded forever. … You’re fighting to beat out the guy ahead of you and to make sure the guy behind you doesn’t beat you out. So everybody’s a little frightened and very thrilled all at the same time. You never feel more alive.”
For Shelton, that short period of his life was disproportionately formative. “It’s a less dramatic version of guys who go to war,” he said. On the road, in need of a way to escape the boredom of hotels and the summer heat, he went to the movies. During his stay in the Texas League, he caught a showing of Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! The experimental satire features a young Robert De Niro and includes a sequence in which African American actors interview white people about what it’s like to be black. Shelton enjoyed the film so much that the next day he brought some teammates to see it. “They hated it,” he said. “Hated it. … And I was going, ‘Guys, it’s a movie. It’s supposed to provoke a conversation.’” Their response? “No, fuck this movie!” Said Shelton: “Guys were so literal about what was in a movie. It was endearing, honestly.”
While falling in love with cinema, Shelton was rising through the talent-loaded Baltimore system. In 1970, he made it to Triple-A Rochester. The next season, his last, he hit .260. When Major League Baseball went on strike in 1972, he figured it was time to quit. “There was a lot of thought that the season would be canceled,” Shelton said. The work stoppage lasted only until mid-April, but he’d resolved to move on.
Soon Shelton earned a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Arizona, but struggled to land a job teaching painting and sculpture. For about 10 years, he painted houses and worked as a carpenter. “A lot of people say they dug ditches as kind of a metaphor,” Shelton said. “I actually dug the ditches.” In his spare time, he started writing screenplays. Most of them ended up in the trash. “I knew they weren’t good enough,” Shelton said.
Eventually, Shelton began selling scripts. He cowrote Under Fire (1983), a Nicaraguan Revolution–set thriller starring Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman, and penned The Best of Times (1986), starring Robin Williams and Kurt Russell as former high school football teammates trying to make up for past failures. On both, Shelton served as a second-unit director.
He felt like a prospect again. “I couldn’t believe they were gonna pay me to do what I like and what I was good at,” Shelton said. But he was still waiting for his call-up to the majors. “I thought if I was gonna have a shot as a director,” he said, “I’m gonna have to write something that everybody else can say, ‘Well, whatever we think of Shelton, certainly nobody in the world knows more about the subject.’”
If there was a subject Shelton was an expert in, it was baseball. The process of trying to make it to the big leagues fascinated him. After all, he said, “Fighting to get there is more interesting than being there.” And maybe more enthralling than that, he added, was watching a veteran player “fighting to hold on.” That was Crash Davis, who in Bull Durham is approaching the minor league career home run record. (Crash dubs his potential accomplishment a “dubious honor.”) Today he’d be called a Quadruple-A player.
“They’re like gunfighters in the Old West,” Shelton said. “They go wherever they’re hired. That kind of professionalism … in all crafts, to this day, I have admiration for. And it’s almost never acknowledged.” Crash wasn’t based on anyone specific, but rather a combination of a bunch of Shelton’s peers. “Maybe if they got a break a few years earlier, they would’ve had a big league career,” he said. “There is some luck involved.”
The other archetype Shelton wanted to explore was obvious: “The young guy who has no clue and all the talent.” He knew that character had to be a pitcher. “You cannot make a movie about a right fielder and a third baseman,” Shelton said, “because they don’t interact.”
For Crash, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh was the perfect foil. The Sidd Finch–looking bonus baby with a 95 mph fastball brags about his Porsche and wears Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe T-shirts. He naturally lacks self-control, on and off the mound. “From what I hear,” Crash tells him, “you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a fucking boat!”
Bull Durham isn’t just about a pair of hard-headed ballplayers. The story belongs to Annie as much as it does to Crash and Nuke. She, not that pair, opens the movie with a narration. “I believe in the Church of Baseball,” she famously begins. Describing her as merely a love interest or a groupie would be criminal. Like Crash, she’s a mentor with exacting standards. Every season, she takes one player under her wing and into her bedroom. “What I give them lasts a lifetime,” she says. “What they give me lasts 142 games.”
Shelton had fun playing with the Nuke-Annie-Crash love triangle, but it was clear to him that the latter two were going to end up together. “It’s about two people who are at a point in their lives where running into each other is forcing them to face the question they haven’t wanted to face,” he said. “Is it time to stop what I’m doing and take some chances? … Crash loves something more than it loves him back. And [Annie’s] created this thing where she’s in complete control. She has a young guy and he’s gone in September. She never has to face the complexities of an actual relationship.”
At first, Shelton pitched Bull Durham as Lysistrata in the minors. The ancient Greek comedy centers on the title character starting a movement to deny men sex in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. Producer Thom Mount, a Durham, North Carolina, native, was intrigued but wanted to hear more. “He said, ‘Well, what else you got?’” Shelton recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s a pitcher, a catcher, and a woman. And the woman’s sleeping with the wrong one of them, and she’s telling the story.’ He said, ‘Let’s go do it.’” (In the film, the Lysistrata-inspired plot line only lasts a few minutes.)
Bull Durham still needed star power. Kevin Costner was interested, but back then, he wasn’t yet world famous. In Hollywood, he was known as the guy whose scenes had been cut out of The Big Chill. Then, in 1987, he appeared in back-to-back hits: The Untouchables and No Way Out. The actor’s emergence as a box-office draw, Shelton said, led to Orion Pictures financing the baseball movie.
Though Costner already had been cast as the lead, he insisted on proving to Shelton that he could actually mash. After downing a couple of vodkas together one afternoon, the director and star headed to a miniature golf course on Van Nuys Boulevard in Los Angeles. Tucked between fake castles and an arcade was a batting cage. “We put a bunch of quarters in the slot,” Shelton said. Costner, who played high school baseball, proceeded to hit from both sides of the plate. He and Shelton next played catch in the parking lot. “People were walking by him all the time,” the latter said. “They didn’t know who he was yet.”
Long before minor league baseball became a cash cow, the Bulls, then a Single-A affiliate of the Braves, played in creaky 60-year-old Durham Athletic Park. Shelton called the weathered stadium and the city “the perfect place” to shoot the movie. Pete Bock, one-time general manager of the Bulls and the founder of the Coastal Plain League, rounded up minor leaguers to fill roles and helped turn the actors into passable players. Future Red Sox manager Grady Little, then the Bulls skipper, was also hired as a consultant.
“Costner was athletic,” Little told The Charlotte Observer in 2014. “He could play baseball, golf, whatever. No problem. But Tim Robbins? He was supposed to be this hard-throwing pitcher, and we had a time with him, trying to get it to look like his delivery would get the ball there hard.”
What Robbins lacked in natural athleticism, he overcame with an excess of goofy charm. “Tim’s performance is underrated,” Shelton said. “He makes you really care about Nuke. He never makes a fool out of him.” Shelton thought Costner’s turn as Crash was “perfect.” When it came to Sarandon, the director went even further. “Susan was transcendent,” he said. “She’s wise, but she’s vulnerable as hell.” Sarandon and Robbins became off-screen partners, but her on-screen connection to Costner seemed real. After finally sleeping together, Crash memorably paints Annie’s toenails red. According to Shelton, the tantalizing moment wasn’t conceived until the day it was shot.
“My philosophy is always: make sex fun on screen,” the director said. “Even funny at times. In the ’70s and ’80s, everybody was trying to be out there with their movie sex scenes. I started asking my friends: ‘Do you have fun with sex?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, why isn’t it in the goddamn movie?’”
For all of its 108 minutes, Bull Durham is as fun as a game of pepper. It’s full of quotable one-liners and big laughs. Red-assed Durham manager Joe Riggins (Trey Wilson) angrily explains to his slumping team that “This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. Got it?” Annie’s pal Millie (Jenny Robertson) says that Nuke “fucks like he pitches. Sorta all over the place.” There’s a wedding at the park—Millie marries the most religious member of the Bulls—and there was almost a funeral, too. Shelton filmed one for Clown Prince of Baseball Max Patkin, who plays himself, but cut it. In a nightmare, Nuke takes the mound in just a garter belt and a jock strap. And Crash delivers a monologue that’s so good it transcends its earnestness. He concludes the speech with this: “I believe in the sweet spot, softcore pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”
Despite his lingering bitterness about never sticking in the majors, despite the resentment he feels for being pushed all the way down to Single-A to tutor a spoiled phenom, Crash continues to take his job seriously. After teaching Nuke everything he knows—including how to use clichés as weapons against prying sportswriters—Crash watches the pitcher get called up to the majors.
“Nuke doesn’t even know what he’s getting and Crash, it’s what he’s always wanted,” Shelton said. “He’s dying inside. But nonetheless, he’s gonna do what he has to do as the father figure.” In their final scene together, Crash gives Nuke one last piece of advice: “You be cocky and arrogant, even when you’re getting beat. That’s the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.”
“That’s basically my life,” Shelton said. “That could be me speaking.”
When Nuke responds, “Right. Fear and ignorance,” Crash calls him a hayseed and corrects him. Only after a moment does the teacher understand that his student is messing with him. “You realize,” Shelton said, “Nuke is growing up.”
On June 15, 1988, Bull Durham premiered. Critics gushed over the movie, which grossed $50.9 million at the box office, more than five times its reported budget. For his screenplay, Shelton was nominated for an Academy Award. Sports Illustrated ranked it the greatest sports movie of all time.
To its director, the movie’s success was surprisingly cathartic. Unlike Crash, who set the minor league home run mark before retiring, Shelton never got a final moment of glory. Bull Durham made up for that. “The movie kind of liberated me from what I viewed as my own failure,” he said. “I was able to enjoy the game again.” In the 20 years prior to the film, Shelton stayed in touch with old teammates like Don Baylor and Bobby Grich, but he could barely watch baseball. It hurt too much.
“I had to go on to something new,” Shelton said. “I had to have my new version of the Show.” That meant making the kind of sports movies that he would like to see. He’s gone on to write and direct several beloved classics of the genre, including basketball buddy comedy White Men Can’t Jump (1992), which pairs Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, and underdog story Tin Cup (1996), which stars Costner as a burned-out golfer who miraculously qualifies for the U.S. Open.
These days, in between watching his teenage son’s baseball games, the 72-year-old Shelton develops stories about athletes for the screen. His pet project is a script about a struggling superstar Yankees pitcher who, after being sent down to the minors, refuses to report to Triple-A. The Lamborghini-driving hurler, who’s in a band, then heads to the only place where he can find a job: the Mexican league. Although baseball films are a tough sell in a world where international appeal matters more than ever—domestic box-office hits Moneyball and 42 didn’t fare terribly well overseas—Shelton is hoping his movie gets made.
When we talked, the director also expressed interest in making movies about the NBA G League, the PGA Tour’s qualifying school, and an NFL backup quarterback. The common thread is clear. To Shelton, drama can always be found in the stories of characters who love something more than it loves them back.