Day 28 of 2022 baseball books: How Ron Shelton put us in the pews with ‘Bull Durham’

“The Church of Baseball: The Making of ‘Bull Durham’: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights,
Big Swings and a Hit”

The author:
Ron Shelton

The publishing info:
Penguin/Random House
256 pages
Released July 5, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At Skylight Books
At Diesel books
At TheLastBookStoreLA

The review in 90 feet or less

In the big inning …

If the church of baseball works as a metaphor for “Bull Durham” — and those who continue to gospel sing its praises nearly 35 years after its release into the world — it can work the other way around in real-time church talk.

In 2017, Dr. Jason Lief, a professor of biblical and theological studies at Northwestern Christian College in Iowa who got his Ph.D. from Luther Seminary, wrote an essay for headlined “Strikeouts are Fascist: Crash Davis and the Body of Christ.”

Hang in there, it’ll make some sense.

Tom Verducci’s lamentations in Sports Illustrated about the state of Major League Baseball was this jumping off point. In light of specialization — the decrease of the number of balls put into play, and the action often reduced to walks, strike outs or home runs — baseball has become boring. The piece refers to a scene in “Bull Durham” when Crash Davis is exasperated with Nuke LaLoosh, calls time, goes to the mound, and blurts out one of 238 memorable lines (*or maybe just a Top 37) from the flick:

Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some groundballs – it’s more democratic.”

Lief sees that as a burning bush moment.

“What makes baseball good and what makes baseball interesting is when it is a collection of players with different skills and abilities working together as a team. We can’t all be shortstops, and we can’t all pitch. We need the gritty little players who slap hit the ball to the opposite field to move a runner, and we need the big swinging lefty to get us back into the game …

“When baseball teams start following some universal pattern, and players start playing the same, looking the same, and sounding the same… well, we get bad baseball. Or, at least boring baseball.”

He ventures to book of Colossians, where Paul says in the New King James Version: “Where there is no longer Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all, and in all!” (Colossians 3:11).

Lief reads into that as: “The church is a unified diversity, or maybe a better way to say it is a diverse unity … We need shortstops, left fielders, catchers, and pinch runners. We need different personalities — the clubhouse clown, the Crash Davis veteran, and the hotshot young pitcher with loads of directionless talent.

“The problem with the church is the same problem affecting baseball — we all want to be the same. We only want to worship with those think like us. We only want to hear the ‘truth’ of scripture that fits with the ‘truth’ as we see it. We don’t want to be bothered with the hard task of serious interpretation or discernment. We certainly don’t want to be bothered with the hard task living in real community, as opposed to the vague, overused, rhetoric that people mistake for community.

“When it comes to the social issues ready to rip our denominations and congregations apart, what if we stopped listening to the loudest, and often most ‘certain’ voices and started listening to the Crash Davises within our communities? What if our churches stopped worshiping at the cult of personality and become much more democratic, much more empathetic, and much more interesting?

“We need each other in all of our diversity and quirkiness. Maybe we need to start playing church (and I mean the word play in a philosophical sense, not a ‘let’s pretend’ sense), and stop talking about being the church.”

Amen and pass the hot dog relish.

With writer/director Ron Shelton’s incredibly insightful breakdown about how, why and what happened when “Bull Durham” came out in baseball’s spiritual summer of 1988 — it preceded the release of “Eight Men Out” and was one bookend of the Dodgers’ improbable World Series run – he often goes back to that church connection to explain, because that’s in his DNA.

He grew up with bible stories. He took required Old and New Testament courses at the Christian liberal arts Westmont College in Santa Barbara and found them to be “the most rigorous classes I’ve ever taken.”

But as a 12-year-old growing up in Santa Barbara, a baseball fan of local native Eddie Matthews and his Milwaukee Braves, when the team moved into in the 1957 World Series facing the New York Yankees, the “church thing” took on new revelations.

Updated in March 2020. Our review is here.

On a Sunday morning in October, after Shelton first attended church school and then went to services at First Baptist Church, his father suddenly took the family out of church to get home in time to meet the TV delivery man from Ott’s department store. A delivery on a Sunday? It was special order.

The black-and-white set came on to show the fourth game of the World Series, as the Braves were trailing two games to one, and prayers were needed.

From page 6: “We watched that game in terror, aware that Eddie was having a terrible series. But after the team tied it in the bottom of the tenth, our hometown hero hit a towering two-run homer to win the game. A great weight lifted up out of the room, my father looked around, his shoulders lightened and we started going to church less and less. The seed for the Church of Baseball was planted.”

The first lines of the movie that Shelton feeds Annie Savoy picks up on that:

Addie Beth Denton’s coming-of-age memoir (Texas Tech University Press, 192 pages) is to be released July 7, 2022

“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring … which makes it like sex.”

From 2019. Our review.

A true Catholic rosary may have just 59 beads – a Mala necklace Hindu prayer beads from India actually has 108 for many more celestial reasons – but the point is made.

The beauty of Shelton’s book is it continues to enlighten and entertain, not through tawdry details about misbehaving cast or crew, but connecting the far more intimate dots, looks at the impact of the film (finding out people have named their kids after some of the characters) and how the city of Durham still credits it for a revival.

It’s also a detailed TED talk about how movies are made, from budgets, shooting schedules, changing scripts and scenes, interwoven music, and what one fights for and gives up on with the bosses.

Such as on pages 203-204

Unnamed executive: “The meeting at the mound has to go.”
Shelton: “Why? It’s funny.”
Unnamed executive: “It’s not funny.” …
Shelton: “The meeting at the mound is the reason I wrote the movie.”
Unnamed executive: “It doesn’t advance the plot.”
Shelton: “There is no plot!”
“The there-is-no-plot defense didn’t resonate,” Shelton admits. “The first test-screening audience would decide if the meeting at the mound stayed or was cut. .. The goal now was to get the film into the leanest and most polished state possible.”

No spoiler alerts here about what was cut, what stayed, and what stays deep in our baseball souls to this day. As Shelton says about the main character Davis, but also pertains to the general theme of how viewers connect to it: Baseball is the kind of game people love, but it doesn’t always love you back.

How it goes in the scorebook

Cover of the recent publication sent to members of the BaseBall Hall of Fame, on the theme of minor league baseball’s importance to the game’s heritage.

Shelton is preaching to the choir here. We are in full communion, no matter what higher being you might leave in the hands of your past, current and afterlife.

We’d have picked this up and sat through it cover to cover no matter what approach he choose, if only to extract nuggets of information and enrich our experience the next 50 times we find it during channel surfing and can’t turn away.

It may also be summed up in an piece Will Leitch did last Thanksgiving when he pitched them the idea of listing the best baseball movies of all time. “Bull Durham” was his top of the lineup: “The conversations on the mound. The tricks for getting out of a slump. The managerial motivational tactics. Which hand to swing with in a fight. “Bull Durham” is a movie that understands the romance and madness of baseball better than any movie ever has, and it has an all-timer cast. The only thing better than watching this movie is watching an actual baseball game. And only barely.

Maybe someone can make a movie about this book that’s about making a movie. Netflix has a series around “The Godfather,” right?

There’s some precedent — in 2018, Entertainment Weekly film critic Chris Nashawaty pulled together the heralded “Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story,” but all the craziness that took place in the cast and crew lended itself to that kind of behind-the-scenes telling by someone not part of it.

The other end of it is Richard Sandomir’s 2017 book, “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of A Classic,” for Hachette Books. That’s far more research and opening up files that hadn’t been really looked through in the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library.

But here, Shelton manages to spare little on each page. There is more concentrated information about the film, the industry, and the foibles of human nature you’d expect.

There are far more blustery reviews one can find about this book.  We’ll save you some trouble:

From Publishers Weekly: “In this spectacular debut … Shelton reflects on the deeply personal passion that brought his canonical sports film … As he writes, it was the ‘fragile and absurd … wondrous and thrilling’  world he discovered there that ignited his dreams to write the film. The result is an immensely moving look into the mind behind the masterpiece.”

From Kirkus: “Shelton’s book is not simply a jaunty recollection of his directing debut, with all its attendant breakthroughs and headaches. The author, who displays sheer, unadulterated love for his subject, also delivers a savvy, unusually informative tutorial on how to take a motion picture from the concept stage to script development, casting, production, and post-production. Shelton examines all of this in a charismatic style that decodes jargon and engages from first page to last. Fans of the film will have new reasons to appreciate it — and the team that made it.” 

Filmmaker Jason Reitman (son of the great Ivan Reitman): “A heart pumping ride, from pitch to script to screen to the Oscars … no filmmaker has given such an unfiltered glimpse into the storytelling process. Shelton has a mutual love for filmmakers and ballplayers — the grunts who take field and the management that controls their dreams. While chasing through the white knuckle pace of movie production, Shelton somehow finds that strand of DNA in all of us that roots for the man at the plate as he chases love, success, good scotch, high fiber, and the hanging curveball.”

And from the New York Times: “Shelton’s new memoir (reveals) a funny thing though about ‘Bull Durham’: There’s not all that much baseball in it. This reflects a maxim of Shelton’s: ‘The biggest mistake a sports movie can make is to have too much sports.’ At the movie’s heart is the love triangle of Crash, Nuke and Annie, the sultry Bulls booster played by Susan Sarandon; command of the infield fly rule is not required to appreciate their chemistry. Shelton was pleased that his former peers in the minors liked the movie, but he knew he had a hit when Billy Wilder, master of the sex farce, summoned him to his table at a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. ‘Great picture, kid,’ he said.”

With us, we just clasp our hands together in a prayerful way, breathe through our eyelids, and say thank you. We’ll leave something extra in the collection plate.

More on the book, movie and Shelton:

== Expect to see Shelton make the book shop circuit in Southern California. The Pacific Palisades resident will be at Diesel bookstore in Santa Monica (225 26th Street) on July 5 at 6:30 p.m. On July 7 he’s at Santa Barbara’s Chaucers’ Books at 6 p.m. On July 24 in Los Feliz, he’ll also be at a “Bull Durham” screening at American Cinematheque followed by a signing at Skylight Books.

== A Q&A with
Q: Your evangelical upbringing, which from your descriptions of your family life, seemed generally reasonable. But by the time Bull Durham was released, the Moral Majority was shaping American society into the theocratic minority we have today. As someone who was raised in it, I’m curious what you think of modern evangelicalism, and are you surprised at how powerful it’s become?
A: My father, who worked at a Christian college, used to say, “We’re evangelicals, not fundamentalists,” but I don’t think that distinction exists anymore. I’m surprised, but mostly disturbed, because the evangelical world I grew up in was rather forgiving. It may have been myopic and perhaps I’m a bit naive since I was just a kid, but it didn’t seem so judgmental and ruthless. Martin Luther King was an evangelical, but as I write in the book, I’m horrified it’s predominantly come to stand for racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, etc. It’s not just evangelicals either. They used to be at odds with Catholics, but no longer. Catholics make up the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court, and they seem really comfortable with one another. 

== “Bull Durham” maintains a 97 percent ratings on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 71 reviews), yet only 82 percent from the audience on 50,000-plus ratings. Rotten Tomatoes’ editorial staff also decided “Bull Durham” was No. 2 in its list of all-time best baseball movies, even though its No. 1 choice, “Moneyball” from 2011, was three percentage points short of “Durham.”

== In 2003, a staff piece in Sports Illustrated named “Bull Durham” the best of the Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies of All Time,” ahead of “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” which both won Academy Awards for best pictures: “The Baseball Hall of Fame might not want Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (or their liberal politics) on display at Cooperstown, but as
wild-armed pitcher Nuke LaLoosh and a philosophizing Baseball Annie named Annie, they are assured of celluloid immortality. Some of the best-remembered scenes (particularly the candlesticks-make-a-nice-gift mound conference) strain credulity, but writer-director (and former minor leaguer) Ron Shelton has superb storytelling chops. Best of all, Costner, as crafty catcher Crash Davis, is a team player, having not yet maxed out on the self-importance scale.”

You can look it up: More to ponder

Three other new books that seem to fall in line with “The Church of Baseball” include:

== “The Baseball Film: A Cultural and Transmedia History,” by Aaron Baker (Rutgers University Press, 208 pages, $27, released January 14, 2022). On the subject of “Bull Durham,” the author, a professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University, seems to want to lump it into how Hollywood perpetuates its themes of nostalgic White Masculinity. He writes most about it in Chapter 5, “Fanball,” when also sizes it up as “guided by its hybrid gene mix of sports movie with romantic comedy … Yet regardless of how Shelton qualifies his strong female lead with the demands of Hollywood genres and their celebration of heterosexual couple and male accomplishment, ‘Bull Durham’ is still an assertion of the value of fan knowledge and enjoyment. After his failed career as a ballplayer, Shelton has explained that until the success of this baseball film he could no longer watch the sport he had loved so much: ‘The movie kind of liberated me from what I view as my own failure … I was able to enjoy the game again’.” (The quote footnote cites Alan Siegel’s story, “Unrequited Love Story: ‘Bull Durham’ at 30,” in The Ringer from June 2018.)

== “Bush League Blues,” by Mike Floyd ($19.95, 311 pages, self published, released May 17, 2022) is a self-published biography that covers 30 chapters of the life and times in his minor-league career during the 1960s. The stories about Tommy Lasorda, the time Pete LaCock threw a ball to hit an official scorer in the press box, the left-handed reliever with the most deceptive pick off move ever … the stuff you’d think would be included in a “Bull Durham” sequel is all here. The bio gives the basics: Floyd was drafted in the eight round of the 1966 draft by the Angels out of Fullerton College, a 5-9, 175-pound outfielder who got to their Triple-A team in Salt Lake City, hitting .294 in 1972. The next year, he was with the Dodgers’ Triple A Albuquerque team, hitting .265. He also played for Houston’s Denver Triple-A team. In three seasons at that level, he hit .271 with 21 HRs, 110 RBIs in 233 games.

== The fourth edition of “The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball: A Complete Record of Teams, Leagues and Seasons, 1876-2019” by Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wold (McFarland, $99, 572 pages) is due out in December, 2022, with a hefty price tag but an even heftier challenge: Keeping track of all those who had careers in the non-MLB pro leagues that feed them. This is a product of down time during the pandemic – a time when baseball’s minor leagues were canceled and ultimately consolidated through a painful process that still hasn’t been fully explained. This origional book was named winner of the Macmillian-SABR Baseball Research Award in 1993 and, in what is said to be its final edition, it will account for the minor leagues as they were known from the late 19th century through 2019. Johnson was a founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City; Wold is the former owner of the Durham Bulls, the Quebec Capitales, the Burlington Royals, and 10 other minor league, independent, and summer collegiate teams, and former publisher and owner of Baseball America.

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