Mix Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” with Julia Phillips’s “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” add behind-the-scenes insight into the beloved film “Bull Durham,” and you get Ron Shelton’s new book, “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham.”
Shelton, a former minor league infielder as well as “Bull Durham’s” screenwriter and director, connects baseball to moviemaking with the common thread of storytelling. “A baseball life is fragile and absurd. It’s also wondrous and thrilling,” he writes, but a “life is not a story until it’s got a structural narrative.” Baseball movies concentrate the fragility, absurdity, wonder and thrill into a good story. What makes “Bull Durham” unique is that rather than a coming-of-age tale, it is a baseball story about aging. “The Church of Baseball” surfaces that theme and lets readers in on its centrality to the movie’s plot and production.
Shelton interweaves the evolution of the film with autobiography. He illuminates the origins of classic scenes, from the meeting on the mound to the “learn your cliches” interview advice. He describes putting the actors through a baseball training camp. And he shares quirky details, like filling a stadium with extras by promising free beer to Pink Floyd fans filing out of a nearby concert.
He also recounts playing in Baltimore’s minor league system in the 1960s, including when he and his teammates snuck into a ballpark on a rainy night to remove a tarp in (unfulfilled) hopes of causing a rainout the next day; that episode inspired a scene in “Bull Durham.” On the same road trip, Shelton had a “Road to Damascus” moment when he went to the cinema and “came out a changed young man” who wanted to know more about telling stories through film. The following year, the first baseball strike in history canceled spring training, and Shelton, a 26-year-old married father, left the game. He turned to moviemaking, carrying his animus against “management” and his lingering regrets with him.
The animus and regrets flavor “The Church of Baseball.” “Bull Durham’s” premise is that a veteran ballplayer (Crash Davis), a young phenom (Nuke LaLoosh) and a wise English professor (Annie Savoy) entangle over the course of a season, culminating in the launch of the newbie’s career and the bittersweet closing of chapters for the other two characters. Alongside this story, which borrows a plot point from the Greek drama “Lysistrata,” Shelton emphasizes that the movie is also about baseball, seen not through the sentimentalized view of fans who profess its timelessness but through the eyes of players, for whom the game is changing all the time, generally in unforgiving ways. Bringing this vision to the screen involved fights with the book’s biggest villain, the “Unnamed [studio] Executive,” which Shelton won through a combination of ingenious moves and lucky breaks.
“The Church of Baseball” shows that “Bull Durham” is popular partly because it is funny, but it also reveals an additional source of the movie’s enduring appeal: willingness to address aging. When I first saw “Bull Durham” on video in my college dorm (back when people used VCRs), I loved the baseball scenes, but the storyline underwhelmed me. This book explains why so many viewers (including my older self) respond differently. In discussing a deleted scene where Annie confronts the reality that hooking up with a new player each year no longer suffices, Shelton reflects poignantly on how that scene resonated with auditioning actresses working in a world controlled by men who routinely dismissed women past the age of 30. And of Crash he writes: “The external force of opposition is the ‘organization’ that has determined it’s too late for him to have what he’s been working for. But the internal force of opposition – do I still have it and does anyone care? – is stronger.” I did not appreciate that conflict as a teenager.
In the intervening decades, much has changed. Baseball has endured additional strikes. After a 1990s revival, the minor leagues now struggle. And that is to say nothing of our democracy, more fragile today than even the baseball life as described by Shelton. Much has changed for me, too, in the usual mixture of good and bad. After college, I chose my graduate school based on proximity to Fenway Park and converted my spouse into a baseball fan there. My youth vanished in the midst of raising kids who, like Crash, often love baseball more than it loves them back. Yet as I was reading this book, I attended the end-of-season banquet for my oldest kid’s JV team, where he was named season MVP.
Annie would channel Walt Whitman here, but I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln, who, upon leaving Springfield, Ill., in 1861, noted his passing from young to old. Shelton’s book illuminates the centrality of that universal passage to “Bull Durham.” “Perhaps ‘Bull Durham’ has resonated all these years because it is about loving something more than it loves you back,” Shelton writes. “It’s about reckoning. It’s about loss.”
But make no mistake. It’s also about baseball.
Chandra Manning is the author of “Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War” and a professor of history at Georgetown University, where her most popular class is “The History of Baseball and American Society.”
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