How does a film helmed by a first-time director with a leading lady the studio didn’t want, about a washed-up baseball player in the twilight of his career become not only one of the greatest sports films ever made but also one of the best romantic comedies for adults? When it’s made by Ron Shelton from his own screenplay and it stars Kevin Costner as the aforementioned player who used his industry clout to give the writer/director his shot and fought for Susan Sarandon to be cast. The end result is Bull Durham (1988), a funny, insightful and sexy look at minor-league baseball and the people that love the sport.
While Kevin Costner is the star, Bull Durham is really about Annie Savoy (Sarandon), a baseball groupie who hooks up with one player for the entire season, imparting her knowledge of not just baseball but also sex and how the two are intertwined for valuable life lessons. Shelton establishes this right from the get-go by having Annie narrate her own story via voiceovers. In her opening monologue she compares baseball to sex and religion, rejecting the latter in favor of metaphysics. She is savvy about what she does and has no illusions:
“I make them feel confident and they make me feel safe and pretty. Of course what I give them lasts a lifetime. What they give me last 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade but bad trades are part of baseball.”
This voiceover plays over footage of Annie getting ready and heading off to the ballpark with church organ music playing in the background, commenting playfully on her devotion to the sport as she concludes, “I’ve tried ‘em all, I really have and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball.” Shelton proceeds to immerse us in the sights and sounds of the ballpark with shots of the team mascot, the section for the players’ wives, and a father with his sons. This conveys a sense of community, especially in small towns like this one where you get the sense that that there isn’t much else to do there.
The Durham Bulls are having a lousy season and what better time than to break in a new hotshot pitcher by the name of Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) who, when we meet him, is more concerned with figuring out his nickname then his professional debut. He starts and it is pretty obvious what his strengths are (a blistering fastball) and his weaknesses are – a lack of control as his first pitch goes flying into the stands. His next one hits the batter.
This intrigues Annie who asks fellow baseball groupie Millie (Jenny Robertson) what sex with Ebby is like and she offers up this memorable gem: “Well, he fucks like he pitches: sorta all over the place.” Shelton proceeds to give us a montage of Ebby’s wild pitches in amusing fashion. When the dust settles, the rookie has walked 18 players and struck out 18 – both league records.
After the game, “Crash” Davis (Costner) shows up telling the assistant coach (a hilarious Robert Wuhl) that he’s “the player to be named later,” brought in to hang out with Ebby and teach him how to play the game properly both on and off the field because he’s got “a million dollar arm but a five cent head.” The manager (Trey Wilson) informs Crash that Ebby is being groomed by a major league team. Naturally, Crash asks what’s in it for him to which the manager replies, “You can keep going to the ballpark and keep getting paid to do it. Beats the hell out of working at Sears.”
The first meeting between Crash and Ebby is a memorable one as the latter picks a fight with the former. Crash has already sized up Ebby and has a pretty good idea of what he’s like and taunts him, daring the pitcher to throw a ball at him, knowing that he’ll miss because he’s thinking too much about it. Ebby misses, of course, and Crash knocks him down with one punch, telling the rookie, “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club.” Annie decides that Ebby is going to be the player she is going to take under her wing but finds herself increasingly drawn to Crash.
Costner’s first appearance is an impressive one for how effortlessly and natural it seems. He walks in and is the character. You believe he’s a veteran player that has seen it all and grown tired of helping others make it to the big leagues. Bull Durham features one of his very best performances. He is particularly good towards the end of the film when Crash is told that he’s no longer needed on the team. Costner’s reaction when he’s told the news is well-played as the shock of it plays across his face and the actor conveys it in his eyes. It’s a really good bit of acting in a career defining performance. Another stand-out moment is when Crash imparts one last lesson on Ebby in a pool hall that crackles with intensity as the catcher has hit rock bottom and is jealous that the pitcher is being promoted to the big leagues while he remains in the minors. Crash lets his anger and bitterness out on Ebby in a really good scene that allows both actors to play well off each other.
Susan Sarandon brings an earthy sexiness to her role. Annie is not only very attractive but is also very smart. She certainly knows a lot about baseball and life, teaching Ebby some valuable lessons in ways that are funny. Shelton shows the contrast between her and Ebby and her and Crash when they finally hook up. With Crash, Annie is on much more even ground as they are both mature people that have been around the block more than a few times. This is evident in a scene where they get into an argument over breaking Ebby’s winning streak. It’s a real conversation that gives us insights into these two people as their attraction to one another is growing but they are afraid to commit because it might be something good and real.
Costner and Sarandon have really wonderful chemistry and this is readily evident from their first scene together. It really kicks in when Annie invites Crash to batting cage practice under the pretense of improving his swing but they cut right to the chase and find out that they have the same goal: to get Ebby ready for the big leagues. They also flirt like crazy with each other with Crash laying it out for her: “The fact is you’re afraid of meeting a guy like me ‘cause it might be real. You sabotage it with some, what is it, some bullshit about commitment to a young boy you can boss around.” It’s a really good scene because we are not only getting witty banter between Annie and Crash but they also get down to the heart of the matter – why she dates guys like Ebby and not someone like Crash.
Tim Robbins is brilliant as the clueless Ebby. It isn’t easy to play someone dumb and not come across as a caricature but the actor does it so well, like during Ebby’s first post-game interview where he offers his reaction to his first professional win: “It feels out there. It’s a major rush. I mean, it doesn’t just feel out there, I mean it feels out there. Kind of radical in a tubular way.” The way Robbins says these lines with a deer caught in the headlights expression is priceless. Throughout the film, the actor achieves just the right mix of cocky arrogance and cluelessness, providing funny comedic moments, like how Ebby breaks out a horrible cover of “Try a Little Tenderness” on the bus en route to the next game and gets the lyrics wrong (“Wooly”?!). As the film progresses, Robbins’ character undergoes a nice arc as we realize that Ebby isn’t really that dumb – he just lacks experience and that only comes with putting in the time and playing games, experiencing winning and losing streaks, and knowing how to deal with both.
Robbins and Sarandon have fantastic chemistry together and it isn’t hard to understand why they became a couple in real life. The scene where they first have sex is funny as Ebby is all in a hurry, quickly stripping down, while Annie tells him to slow down and ends up reading poetry to him instead.
The three lead actors are supported by a wonderful cast of character actors. There is Trey Wilson’s angry manager who tries to turn his team around and get them winning again. The actor brings an amusing gruffness to the role, playing well off of Robert Wuhl’s motormouthed assistant coach. He gets a funny moment during the iconic scene where his character approaches the pitcher’s mound during a game where several of the players have gathered, each with their own problem. Wuhl listens to the list of complaints and without missing a beat offers a solution that is quite funny.
Shelton’s screenplay is tight and chock full of wonderful truisms about baseball and life. It lets us into Crash’s head, showing how he thinks about baseball, like the internal debate he has with himself during his first at bat. We see how well he reads the game thanks to years of experience. We also see how superstitious some players are and how important the mental aspect is to how athletes perform. Crash spends most of his time teaching Ebby how to think or, rather, not to think about the game because he realizes that the rookie has great instincts and natural talent – he just needs to figure out how to channel it. To this end, Crash teaches Ebby interview clichés with gems like, “We got to play them one day at a time,” that we’ve seen actual players spout on television.
Shelton does an excellent job of showing the life of a journeyman ballplayer at the minor-league level, going from town to town. For every Ebby there are all kinds of Crashes that never make it and for them it is a job. That being said, Shelton still imparts a love for the game and how people in small towns all around America gather to cheer on their hometown team.
As Crash has grown tired of teaching young guys the fundamentals of baseball, Annie eventually grows tired of teaching young men about life and sex. She’s ready for someone like Crash who calls her on her metaphysical mumbo jumbo – only she doesn’t realize it until later in the film. As the film progresses, it asks the question, what do you do when you can no longer play the game? It becomes apparent that Crash’s knowledge about the sport would be better suited towards coaching and maybe that could be his path to the majors.
Ron Shelton grew up in Santa Barbara, California, graduating from Westmont College. He had always been a jock and wanted to be a professional baseball player. He ended up as a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A team in Rochester, New York for five years but made it no further. “I had made my living as a baseball player…But I didn’t want to be an aging 15-year minor leaguer. I decided simply to make a change and not look back.” He quit in 1972, got married, had two daughters, and received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Arizona. He moved to Los Angeles where he painted as well as doing several odd jobs to support his family.
Shelton had wanted to write something about his experiences as a baseball player but didn’t have a story to go with the subject. During his playing days, he would spend his down time between games going to the movies. He finally came up with a story and wrote a screenplay entitled, A Player to Be Named Later about a veteran catcher and a wild rookie pitcher. When writing the script, Shelton wanted to include the notion that “most of the time in baseball is spent between the action.” He explained, “Most of my memories are of conversations on the mound or absurd arguments with umpires.” In addition, he wanted the film to “be about the players who were grinding it out trying to make a living in this game.” Shelton had known a lot of guys like Crash and guys like Ebby that “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.”
Shelton couldn’t sell his script but did get an agent. This led to him getting work on Under Fire (1983), rewriting the script for director Roger Spottiswode. The two men worked together again on The Best of Times (1986) where Shelton got a desire to write and direct his own film: “Movies are made up of tiny moments, and I really felt the desire to get down in the trenches with the actors and find those tiny moments.” He revisited his baseball script, reworking it and in doing so added new layers to the lead female character. Annie came out of Shelton “hating how women had been portrayed in sports movies, and from my love and respect for women.” When asked if Annie was based on anybody real, he responded, “Trust me, I never met anyone like her in the minors.”
Producer Thom Mount, who was also co-owner of minor-league baseball team the Durham Bulls, was, not surprisingly, passionate about the game: “Minor league ball is one of the last authentic bastions of small-town American life.” He had is own production company after spending years working in the Hollywood studio system. Mount hired Kevin Costner to be in a television miniseries but the network rejected the actor because he wasn’t a star. The producer felt differently.
When Mount met Shelton and read the script, he wanted to make the film and suggested Costner as the lead character. Originally, the actor was going to do either Eight Men Out (1988) or Everybody’s All-American (1988) but when he read Shelton’s script, he was impressed by the level of detail. Shelton’s original wishlist of actors to play Crash included Costner, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Harrison Ford. Costner was the first one to say yes. As it turned out, Shelton was a fan of Costner’s work in Fandango (1985) and Silverado (1985). Despite being a natural athlete, the actor insisted on auditioning for Shelton at a San Fernando Valley batting cage. Shelton was impressed with Costner’s natural ability, which included being a switch-hitter.
Mount shopped the project around Hollywood and was turned down twice by every studio because baseball movies were not considered commercially viable at the time. Finally, Orion Pictures executives read the script. The studio was already making another baseball film at the time – Eight Men Out with John Sayles – and Costner didn’t think they’d go for a second film. Eighteen hours later Shelton was given an $8.5 million budget. Orion had made No Way Out (1987) with Costner and were convinced that he was going to be a big star.
For Ebby, the producers wanted Charlie Sheen but he had already committed to Eight Men Out. Orion wanted them to meet with Anthony Michael Hall. When the actor met with Shelton he showed up late and hadn’t read the script. Tim Robbins was a baseball fan and had been up for both Eight Men Out and Bull Durham, choosing the latter. The studio didn’t like him, however, perhaps as a result of his appearance in the high-profile flop Howard the Duck (1986), and Shelton threatened to quit if he wasn’t allowed to cast him.
Shelton also had to fight the studio over casting Susan Sarandon as Annie. Executives felt that her career was already over, was too old and not funny, and wanted Kim Basinger. Initially, Shelton wanted to Ellen Barkin but she passed on it. The studio wasn’t even willing to pay for Sarandon’s flight to L.A. (she was living in Italy at the time) but after reading the script, she paid her own way. The actress remembers, “I knew I had to put my ego aside and just go for it.” She met with studio executives and charmed them.
The conflicts with the studio over Robbins and Sarandon didn’t end there. During filming, executives were worried that the former wasn’t funny enough. After seeing dailies, then studio head Mike Medavoy called Shelton on the set and ordered him to replace the actor. Shelton threatened to quit if Robbins was fired. On the second day of dailies, one of the film’s producers confided to Sarandon that she didn’t look good in her close-ups. Shelton exploded and went after the man, telling him, “You ever talk to my actors again, I’ll kick your fucking ass.”
In order to accurately portray baseball in the film, Mount brought on Pete Bock as a baseball consultant. Bock was a former semi-pro ballplayer, spent three years as a pro umpire in the Appalachian, South Atlanta and Carolina leagues before spending several years as general manager of the Durham Bulls. He recruited several minor-league ballplayers and ran a tryout camp to recruit an additional 40-50 players for the game scenes. He also hired several minor-league umpires. In addition, Bock conducted two-a-day workouts and practice games with Robbins pitching and Costner catching. Bock said of the two actors – Robbins had “a lot of raw talent...But he didn’t have the mechanics down,” and Costner was “outstanding” and “amazing…We kidded him if he’d give up movies real quick, we’d sign him.” He made sure the actors performed like ballplayers (wearing their uniforms properly and standing correctly in the field) while also making sure the ballplayers acted.
Shelton scouted locations in the southern United States before choosing Durham, North Carolina – Mount’s hometown – because of its old ballpark. Shelton didn’t get the greenlight until late in the year and so Bull Durham was filmed in October and November. It was cold and the grass was changing color. The production staff had to repeatedly paint the baseball field green. In addition, many of the game scenes were shot at night to hide the fact that the leaves were turning brown.
According to actor Robert Wuhl, he came up with his character’s dialogue for the memorable pitcher’s mound scene. A week before shooting it, he was talking to his wife about a wedding gift to get a friend and her response is what he used in the film! Orion wanted to cut the scene because it had nothing to do with the plot but Shelton argued, “There is no plot. The movie is well-structured, but there’s no plot.” He even had to convince the studio to film the scene.
Interestingly, a Los Angeles Times profile on the film at the time suggested that Sarandon was aloof to the cast and crew, refusing to give interviews, even to the Orion film crew that had flown in to do a video press kit. They even quoted an anonymous cast member as saying, “Susan plans to see a rough cut of the film before making a decision to do any press. If she then does any interviews, it’s like she’s giving her blessing.”
Bull Durham received positive critical notices. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “I don’t know who else they could have hired to play Annie Savoy, the Sarandon character who pledges her heart and her body to one player a season, but I doubt if the character would have worked without Sarandon’s wonderful performance.” Pauline Kael called it a “sunny romantic comedy” that “has the kind of dizzying off center literacy that Preston Sturges’ pictures had.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Shelton: “As a director, he demonstrates the sort of expert comic timing and control that allow him to get in and out of situations so quickly that they’re over before one has time to question them. Part of the fun in watching Bull Durham is in the awareness that a clearly seen vision is being realized. This is one first rate debut.” Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf wrote, “It’s a good movie and a damn good baseball movie.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson praised Costner’s performance: “For once Costner has role that he can sink into, that fits his skills, and he shows enormous authority and charm…and with this one performance, he emerges as a true star presence.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “In the same vein, Annie, for all the tough/soft dimension that Sarandon gives her, is really a paper-thin vehicle for a man’s warmest imaginings.”
The first half of Bull Durham is in definite romantic comedy territory fused with a sports movie and then by the last third it integrates more dramatic elements when the Bulls lose after a winning streak and Crash is kicked out of the game for mouthing off to the umpire. It marks a significant turning point for the three main characters as Ebby finds out that he’s been promoted to the majors and Annie ends their relationship and starts one with Crash. The last third also takes on a slightly somber tone mixed with humor as Crash has to figure out what to do next. It’s a master class in how to depict a believable romance between two adults that is sexy without being too explicit. Shelton achieves just the right mix, which may explain why Bull Durham still holds up after all these years.
One of the things I like the most about Bull Durham is that you feel like you’ve been on a journey with these characters. They’ve changed in significant ways by its end. Crash and Annie learn that baseball isn’t everything and that what they have together is more important as he tells her at the end of the film, “I got a lotta time to hear your theories and I want to hear every damn one of them but now I’m tired and I just don’t want to think about baseball and I don’t want to think about nothing. I just want to be.” It’s a great sentiment to end the film on and Shelton makes sure we feel good about it with the final shot of Annie and Crash dancing in her house. In the wrong hands, this could have been too silly but because of where Shelton has taken these characters over the course of the film, we feel that they’ve earned it.
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King, Susan. “Ron Shelton Lets His Baseball Flick Stand as is for its Release on Special-Edition DVD.” Los Angeles Times. April 2, 2002.
Loverro. Thom. “Bull Durham, 25 Years Later.” Sports on Earth. June 11, 2003.
Mansfield, Stephanie. “A Dangerous Man.” GQ. October 1992.
Modderno, Craig. “Can Orion Hit and Run with Bull Durham?” Los Angeles Times. January 10, 1988.
Nashawaty, Chris. “Worshipping at the Church of Baseball.” Sports Illustrated. July 9, 2012.
Silverman, Jeff. “Creator of Bull Durham is Rounding Third and Heading for Redemption.” Chicago Tribune. July 29, 1988.
Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Consultant with Cleats.” The New York Times. June 10, 1988.