The cast and crew of Bull Durham try to wrap their minds around how, 24 years ago, a minor league baseball movie became such a major league Hollywood hit
This is an article from the July 9, 2012 issue
The 1988 MLB season bubbled over with unlikely plotlines: The Cubs won the first night game ever played at Wrigley. The Blue Jays' Dave Stieb had two straight no-hitters broken up with two outs in the ninth. And Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hobbled to the plate in Game 1 of the World Series to smash a pinch-hit, walk-off home run against A's assassin Dennis Eckersley. In theaters across America, another magical story unfolded. A little $7 million comedy, directed by a washed-out Triple A infielder and starring a bunch of actors who were no one's idea of stars, reminded moviegoers: Baseball is the closest thing in America to a common religion. The film didn't care about clichés or suspenseful bottom-of-the-ninth at bats. It was all about the details—the color and the craziness of the lives of minor leaguers itching to make it to The Show. Maybe that's why it became a classic and earned this magazine's stamp, in 2003, as the Greatest Sports Movie Ever. Twenty-four years later, SI reassembled everybody's favorite Carolina League roster for a look back at the making of Bull Durham.
I. "I believe in the Church of Baseball ..."
RON SHELTON (WRITER, DIRECTOR): I played ball in the minors for five seasons and quit during the strike of 1972. I was a second baseman in the Orioles' organization. Baltimore was a powerhouse at that time: Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and four 20-game winners. The highest I got was the Rochester Red Wings, in Triple A. I was a .251 hitter, and the most I made was about $900 a month. I had a couple of good years, and I probably could have kept grinding it, maybe gotten a shot somewhere. But I didn't want to become Crash Davis.
THOM MOUNT (PRODUCER): In the early '80s, along with two partners, I started a company that bought and developed minor league baseball teams, including the Durham Bulls for $35,000. I had grown up in Durham, going to the ballpark that's in the movie. A ball game, a hot dog and a Coke on a summer evening—how much better can life get?
SHELTON: When I was playing, I would go to the movies like a junkie. What else can you do when you're on the road? And then my playing days were over. You live with an edge when you play; then, when you're out of baseball, you try to replace that edge for the rest of your life. For me that edge came from screenplays. I'd written a couple that got made: Under Fire, about the Nicaraguan revolution, and The Best of Times [with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell], about trying to replay a high school football game some years later. When I was ready to direct, I thought I should write about something that I knew better than anybody else, even though I had always hated baseball movies. They always have a big game at the end and someone always hits a walk-off grand slam, which almost never happens. Baseball careers end on a ground ball to short.
MOUNT: Ron's first draft of Bull Durham wasn't quite there. But his second draft was extraordinary. It had Annie [Savoy], and she had a point of view and a voice. Crash got deeper. And Nuke got wackier. The movie became about something other than baseball. I had recruited Kevin Costner to be in a TV miniseries a year and a half earlier, but the network turned him down because he wasn't a star. I felt that he was going to break out.
SHELTON: I wanted Bull Durham to be about the players who were grinding it out trying to make a living in this game. I knew so many guys like Crash Davis. They didn't look like Kevin Costner, but they were consummate pros and really talented. The other archetype was the gifted young athlete who could throw a ball through a brick wall but who didn't understand that if he didn't take this seriously, he was going to be selling aluminum siding in five years. That was Nuke LaLoosh. As for Annie Savoy, her character was just a figment of my dreams. Trust me, I never met anyone like her in the minors.
KEVIN COSTNER (VETERAN CATCHER CRASH DAVIS): I was going to do another movie called Everybody's All-American [based on SI writer Frank Deford's novel about a washed-up football player] when I read Ron's script. It was amazing. I don't recall whether I knew about Ron's past in minor league baseball before I read it, but it became apparent from the level of detail in the script that all that time he spent riding buses, hoping for a shot at the big leagues, he was absorbing things.
SHELTON: I had loved Kevin in this little movie called Fandango, and also Silverado. When he read the script, he said, "Look, you played ball professionally. I was just a high school player. I want to try out for you." By then everybody was trying to get Kevin, and he asked to audition for me! He said, "Let's go to the batting cages." So we got a bunch of quarters and went out to these cages on Van Nuys Boulevard, in Los Angeles. He has a gorgeous swing—a better looking swing than I had. And then he goes around to the left side. He could switch-hit!
MARK BURG (PRODUCER): The original list for Crash Davis was Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Harrison Ford. Kevin said yes first.
COSTNER: Ron understands that in sports people don't want to talk about records, but he also understands that they're important. And Crash, at the end of his career, was willing to mentor a kid so that he could hit a home run that set an obscure minor league record because it was important to him. Crash had a certain dignity and lonely heroism. He's never going to make it to the bigs, but he has to cross that one threshold. Ron understood that better than anybody.
MOUNT: We packaged the movie with Kevin, Ron as a first-time director, me, and no money. Just what you always wanted!
SHELTON: Every studio turned us down twice. They thought that sports movies were box office poison and that Costner hadn't really proved yet that he was a star. Orion [Pictures] got it. Kevin had another movie there that hadn't come out yet that they were high on.
MIKE MEDAVOY (COFOUNDER OF ORION PICTURES): We had just done No Way Out [a naval thriller with Gene Hackman and Sean Young] with Kevin. I felt that Costner was going to make it.
COSTNER: We took Bull Durham around to everybody. Ron said that he felt like we were a couple of hookers trying to sell ourselves on the street. I had a relationship with Orion, but they had another baseball movie, Eight Men Out. I didn't think they'd go for a second baseball movie, but I felt like this had the potential to be more commercial. It smelled like money.
II. "Why's he always calling me Meat? I'm the guy driving a Porsche."
BURG: The next thing was to find the pitcher—the kid. We wanted Charlie Sheen to play Nuke LaLoosh, but he had already committed to Eight Men Out. The other person Orion was pushing was Anthony Michael Hall. I went to New York with Ron to meet him. [Hall] walked in half an hour late and hadn't read the script. I thought Ron was going to shoot him. But we gave him the script and said, "Why don't you go read it, and we'll meet again tomorrow." So he comes in the following day and says, "I'm about halfway through it." And Shelton gets up and leaves. Then Tim came in and auditioned.
TIM ROBBINS (COCKY PITCHER EBBY CALVIN "NUKE" LALOOSH): I was a Mets fan growing up. I saw them win the World Series in 1969. I was 11 years old, and it was my birthday. I was with my grandma. We lived in Manhattan, and she got up early and took the train out to Flushing and bought tickets [to Game 5]. It was the greatest birthday gift a kid ever got. Later, I was offered a part in Eight Men Out, and I had to choose between baseball movies. I remember I had to play catch with Ron at my audition. He wanted to make sure I could throw.
MEDAVOY: I had a big question about Tim, and I was wrong. I didn't realize how funny he was.
ROBBINS: Nuke was a great character. I always loved the eccentric players—Bill Lee, Jimmy Piersall.... When the knuckleball pitcher with the crazy long hair and the attitude comes along, or Bobby Valentine dresses up as Groucho Marx in a fake mustache, those guys are delightful to watch.
SHELTON: Not only did I have to fight for Tim, I had to fight for Susan [Sarandon, who played Annie]. The studio didn't want her. She was living in Italy at the time. And they were afraid her career was over. They wanted Kim Basinger.
BURG: Susan Sarandon at the time was not at the top of anybody's list. I think Ron's first choice was Ellen Barkin, but she passed.
SUSAN SARANDON (BASEBALL GROUPIE ANNIE SAVOY): At the time I had a child with an Italian, and we were living in a small village on the sea. My agent sent me this script. He said Orion had gone out to a number of actresses who were higher up on the list, but that they had refused to audition. I was at the bottom of the barrel, I guess. The studio wasn't even interested enough in me to pay for my flight to L.A. But the characters were so funny, and the speeches were so poetic. I knew I had to put my ego aside and just go for it.
MOUNT: Mike Medavoy thought Susan was too old and not funny. So I said to her, "This is what I need you to do: Go get a tight, tight dress that shows as much cleavage as humanly possible." I called Medavoy back and asked him to just meet her. I said, "Susan, your job today is go to Mike's office and show as much cleavage as possible. Lean over his desk for 30 minutes, and he'll say yes." She was game, thank God.
SARANDON: As a rule, most studio executives' strong suit isn't imagination. So when you're trying to get a part, it helps for them to be able to envision you in the part. I definitely didn't go in there in a T-shirt and jeans. I remember I had on an off-the-shoulder red-and-white-striped dress. It was very form-fitting. It was understood what I had to do.
MEDAVOY: Susan was a total revelation. She just charmed everybody.
SARANDON: I don't know if Bull Durham is Annie's story, but what was so revolutionary was: Here was a woman who was on equal footing with the guys sexually, and she got to be the one to choose who she wanted to be with. She liked sex, and she liked sports, and at the end of the movie she didn't have to die for it.
ROBERT WUHL (PITCHING COACH LARRY HOCKETT): Ron will tell you that when I came in it was probably one of the worst auditions he ever saw.
SHELTON: Robert came in and gave the worst audition I've ever seen.
WUHL: My character doesn't have that much dialogue, so I went to my guru, the late great Bruno Kirby, who I had worked with on Good Morning, Vietnam, and I asked, "What's the key to this character?" And he said, "In baseball the pitching coach is attached to the manager. If the manager goes up, he usually takes his pitching coach with him." So I thought, O.K., I get it; he's a yes man. Ron was putting together a ball club, and he knew every piece had to have a purpose. I was the comic relief. And what about [actor] Trey Wilson as the manager? What a sweetheart of a guy. He looked just like Danny Murtaugh, the old manager of the Pirates.
III. "So is somebody going to go to bed with somebody or what?"
MOUNT: I told Ron that I'd love to shoot the movie in Durham because we owned the club. But he had to make the decision. You can't jam him. He's kind of a curmudgeon. So is Crash Davis. And Ron Shelton is Crash Davis. So Ron went on a tour to look at different parks. When he came back, he said, "I love Durham."
SHELTON: We had five weeks to prep. This was September and the minor league season was just ending. I hired Grady Little, who had just managed the Durham Bulls, to head up a baseball boot camp for the guys. I love Grady Little. I think he's taken so much s---. He averaged 94 wins a year in four seasons in the majors [editor's note: 89.5, but close], and he can't get a job. Unbelievable.
COSTNER: Boot camp was fun. I was nervous at first because Ron made sure that the guys we were playing against were real Double A and Triple A players. I don't want to say that I was intimidated, but the first time I had to take batting practice, I was doing everything I could to not have to bat. This was in a giant minor league park, and no one had hit one out. And when I finally stepped in, guys started paying attention: "Let's see the Hollywood sissy hit!" The first pitch I fouled off, and I was relieved. I remember stepping out of the box and thinking, What are you so nervous about? You have the job. The next pitch I hit over the fence—about 365 feet. Playing a catcher in that movie I tore both muscles in my quads. Afterward, when I went back to the house I was living in, I had to go up the stairs on my knees.
ROBBINS: Nuke's pitching style is mostly borrowed from [six-time All-Star] Fernando Valenzuela, including the eye roll. There were a couple of shots in the movie where I had to cook it up, get my fastball up to a respectable speed. One of the coaches told me I got it up to 82 or something—but I never knew where it was going to go.
SHELTON: Tim's motion was goofy like Dean Chance's, but that kind of goes along with his goofy character. Is he as good a ballplayer as Kevin? No. Does he work in the movie? Yes.
COSTNER: Tim could throw. You could see that it wasn't his chosen sport, but he's fearless.
SHELTON: I had seen the name Crash Davis in an old Carolina League record book. So I used that name in the script, thinking that the real Crash Davis was long gone because he had played in the '40s. On the first day of shooting, my assistant comes into the office and says, "Crash Davis is on the phone." I didn't believe it, so I said, "Ask him how many doubles he hit in 1948." And my assistant comes back and says, "Fifty." I was like, Holy s---! The next day, Crash came to the set. He asked what the story was about. And he asked, "Do I get the girl?" And I said, "Yes! In fact, I'll introduce you to the girl." Of course, Susan charmed the heck out of him.
SARANDON: I was nervous about doing a film with a bunch of jocks. I thought it would be a nightmare. But I was treated with so much respect on that film and grew to love those guys so much that I was inviting everyone over for barbecue chicken. We had Thanksgiving at my house.
BURG: Everybody knew there was something [romantic] happening between Tim and Susan. It was obvious. You'd be sitting in the bar of the hotel, where most everyone was staying except Susan, and Tim would be drinking with us and then say he was turning in and walk out to the parking lot and get in his rental car and head to Susan's house.
COSTNER: I had no idea.
SHELTON: I didn't have a clue.
SARANDON: Actually, it happened after the movie. I mean, there was an attraction during the movie, and I could see something was changing from friendship to something else, but we both decided we would wait until we cleared up things in our lives....
ROBBINS: ... And we have two great children as a result of that movie.
IV. "I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter ..."
SHELTON: We painted the grass green twice, and it still looks yellow on film. There aren't that many extras in the stands. It's a small park. The biggest crowd we had was only a couple hundred. We built the bull sign—it was in the script. Ebbets Field had a sign where if you hit it you won a suit. So I wrote, Hit the bull, win a steak. It became such an icon that when they built a new stadium in Durham they built the same sign there.
BURG: The wedding scene was a night scene, and we had no money for extras. Pink Floyd was playing a concert in Chapel Hill, so we went and got the band to say, "We'll be partying after the show at the Durham Athletic Field, meet us there!" And around 11 that night thousands of people showed up in Pink Floyd T-shirts, drunk. That's how we got our extras. We just got lucky. It was that kind of movie.
WUHL: We pulled one of the great practical jokes on that movie. One of the ballplayers in the film was always bragging about how he was scoring with all the local talent in Durham. So we set up one of the local cops to mock-arrest him, saying that one of the girls was 16 years old. Ron was in on it. The cop came over and said, "You're going to have to come with us!" And he just panicked. It was cruel.
COSTNER: I knew that famous speech that I get to give to Susan was really good when I read it in the script. "I believe in the small of a woman's back, the hanging curveball...." It's a tremendous bit of writing. I never thought I really nailed it. I just thought I could have been in the moment more. But I was happy to be able to say it.
ROBBINS: I really liked doing that whole dream sequence when I'm on the mound naked. That was fun. Cold, though. And I like the scene where we slide on the field in the sprinklers.
SHELTON: The sprinkler thing, that really happened to me. In Double A we used to go out and flood the field to get a day off. Two times it worked. The third time they made us play in the mud.
ROBBINS: I remember Paula Abdul came to Durham to help me with this flashy dance I had to do in a bar scene. I didn't know who she was. To me she was just this supersweet dancer.
SHELTON: I'd never heard of her. But she came up to me and asked, "What part do you have for me?" And I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "The producer said that if I did the choreography for Tim you would have a speaking part for me." I said, "I'm sorry," and she marched off screaming.
WUHL: The candlesticks scene on the mound—I came up with that. A week before we started shooting a friend was getting married, and I called my wife and asked, "What do I get him for a present?" And she said, "Candlesticks always make a nice gift; or find out where they're registered and perhaps a nice place setting." Come the day of the shoot, I walk out and there's the whole setup. Costner says, "Nuke's old man is in the stands; so-and-so put a curse on the first baseman's glove; and we don't know what to get Millie and Jimmy for a wedding present—we're dealing with a lot of s--- here." And my line was supposed to be, "O.K., I thought there was a problem." We did it that way a few times. And then Ron said, "O.K., Robert, do one for yourself." And I just echoed what my wife said and then I waddled back to the dugout with my ass sticking out.
V. "You're gonna have to learn your clichés.... Write this down: We gotta play 'em one day at a time...."
SHELTON: The movie opened in June 1988, and it ended up making a little over $50 million—which is like $100 million today. The reviews were unbelievable. All I thought was, This means I get to direct another movie! It's like baseball. In baseball if you hit .300, you get to play for another year. I got nominated for a screenwriting Oscar. I went to the Oscars, and Best Original Screenplay was one of the first awards of the night. I thought we should have won, but Rain Man got it, so I had to sit there for three hours after I lost. A few months earlier I had received the call that Trey Wilson had died. What a tragedy.
WUHL: I couldn't believe it when I heard about Trey. He had a hemorrhage in his brain. We hung out a lot together. I was probably closer to him than anyone else on the movie. What a shame.
SARANDON: People still come up to me to talk about Annie. It was an important film for me. I think the movie holds up so well because it's smart and it has heart. Ron said that every spring when he smells the fresh-cut grass he thinks of going to spring training and he gets a pang. After he left baseball, it was a while before he could really watch the game again.
SHELTON: I've done a few sports movies now, and I think that what makes the good ones work is detail, authenticity and to make it from the player's point of view, not the fan's. The player sees a different game from the fan. If you love sports, most of the good stuff occurs between the plays, not the plays themselves.
COSTNER: Ron totally got that world and understood that Crash's time in the minors wasn't about winning the big game. It was about not making it to the bigs. It was about the willingness to go hit a home run in obscurity. It was about falling in love. It was about not letting go of the game. He did the same thing with Tin Cup [which Costner also starred in]. He gets the poetry of sports.
ROBBINS: What happened to the characters? Well, I'd like to think that Crash and Annie ended up having a pretty good marriage and that they're still together. And Nuke? I always thought that Nuke maybe had a flash in the majors and then blew out his arm and is now signing autographs at trade shows. But maybe you shouldn't print that. That's the kind of idea that leads to sequels.
What ever became of the Durham Bulls and their off-camera cohorts?
Won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 1991 for Dances With Wolves and starred in three other movies in baseball-related roles. In 2009 he became a part owner of the Lake County (Ill.) Fielders in the then independent Northern League.
Appeared in three more Shelton films before producing and starring in the sports-agent comedy series Arli$$, which aired on HBO from 1996 through 2002. Hosted a sports talk radio show for Westwood One.
Still writes and directs sports movies, including White Men Can't Jump, Blue Chips, Cobb, Tin Cup and a 2010 installment in ESPN's 30 For 30 documentary series, about Michael Jordan's stint in minor league baseball.
Starred in more than 40 more films, including The Player, The Shawshank Redemption and Mystic River, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2004. Broke up with Sarandon 21 years after Bull Durham, in '09.
Produced the hugely successful Saw horror franchise and the hit CBS comedy series Two and a Half Men. Today he manages actor Charlie Sheen and is executive producing Sheen's new TV show, Anger Management, on FX.
Continues to work as an executive producer (Tequila Sunrise, Natural Born Killers). Currently developing a slate of low-budget teen movies. Announced in 2010 that he was developing a script for a Bull Durham sequel.
Went on to become one of Hollywood's most in-demand actresses, starring in Thelma & Louise, The Client and Dead Man Walking, for which she won Best Actress (her fifth nomination) in 1996. Started a table tennis club, SPiN, in New York City in 2009.
Veteran character actor (whom you might recognize as the father from the video for Pat Benatar's Love Is a Battlefield) lent his easy, lived-in charisma to five more movies before dying from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 40 in 1989.
Exited Orion Pictures in 1990 to become chairman at TriStar Pictures. His latest project, which is still in the script phase: a big-screen account of the 2010 Chilean mining accident that left 33 men trapped below ground for 69 days.