Ron Shelton on the sustainable “Church of Baseball”

“Bull Durham” and Ron Shelton’s “White Men Can’t Jump” are some of the few movies that people who have actually lifted a bat or taken a jump shot for a living can watch without rolling their eyes.

As he recounts in his new book “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit” (Knopf, $30) sitting in movies like “Pride of the Yankees” was a chore for him. From 1967 to 1971, Shelton played second base and shortstop for the Stockton Ports in baseball A, the AAA team of the Rochester (New York) Redwings (where he made the Hall of Fame of the team) and the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs AA team. (“The Church of Baseball” also recounts how a rain shower in Little Rock became his “Road to Damascus” moment in his film career and informed a major scene in “Bull Durham.”)


When asked if he got into acting because the way basketball and baseball were portrayed on screen was so horribly inaccurate (try, try just watching Anthony Perkins throw a ball baseball in “Fear Strikes Out”), Shelton laughs.

“I did a (TV) pilot that didn’t catch on, which was set at AAA Nashville a few years ago. And I just put a ball on the table and a bat in the corner. I didn’t say anything about them, and the ball players came in, and he couldn’t help but grab the baseball and start holding it or picking up the bat. The non-athletes were scared of them . It was evident.

Supporting actors in his films often feature moonlighting actors to make the background action less fake, and there are actors like “Bull Durham” star Kevin Costner, Wesley Snipes, Kurt Russell and Woody Harrelson who can play as well as nail their (sometimes detailed).

In “White Men Can’t Jump”, Australian cinematographer Russell Boyd (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) films Harrelson and Snipes from wide angles demonstrating that they really sink these jumpers.

“It was essential to establish that every time the ball left the hand in the film, the audience could accept that it could play and it’s not a Hollywood thing. Once that is established, you can edit as you wish. Later in the movie, Wesley does a crazy drive. The ball goes under his leg and behind his leg, and it’s all in one shot,” Shelton explains.

“It’s pretty essential for a sports movie to get it right, because audiences are too hip now and too spoiled by TV sports. I mentioned that in the book. [On TV,] we see a baseball game with 17 cameras and endless replay of high-speed, reverse angles. I have one or two cameras, so I have to put my cameras wherever these 17 TV cameras can’t go. I can go to the locker room. I get on the bus. I go inside [the athlete’s mind].”


Ironically, this intimacy might have explained why the woman I made as my first date to see the film when it was released in 1988 enjoyed “Bull Durham” as much as I did. She knew less about baseball than I did, but we both loved getting to know catcher “Crash” Davis (Costner) and pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) watching the love triangle between them and Annie Savoy , a community college teacher (Susan Sarandon).

She was also fond of later quoting some of Shelton’s surgically sharp dialogue. It’s easy to want to taunt someone by shouting, “You can’t touch the water if you fall from a [expletive] boat” or lamenting that a mediocre player in any sport has “a million dollar arm and a five hundred head”.

Shelton has a bachelor’s degree from Baptist-affiliated Westmont College, where he learned classic Ingmar Bergman films from English professor Leonard Oakland, and a master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Arizona. .

In many ways, his films are as much about language as they are about the ball. That’s probably why he wrote two well-received political dramas, Roger Spottiswoode’s “Under Fire” and his own crime drama “Blaze” and about the Los Angeles riots “Dark Blue.”

In some ways, the character banter is like free souvenirs for his films, and not knowing American pastimes such as baseball or hoops is no obstacle to enjoying the filmmaker’s work.

“(The movies) are about human behavior, and language is a way into it. I think baseball and basketball are just backdrops for both stories,” Shelton explained. “My films do very well in the UK and what used to be called the Commonwealth, basically the former British Empire. Wherever they speak English in the world, the language is appreciated.

“Also my movies don’t translate very well. If you can imagine trying to translate ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ or even some of the dialogue from ‘Bull Durham’, like ‘Bring me the cheese, the meat’ , English speakers love it. We’ve looked at the Spanish, Italian, and French translations, it just doesn’t work. I’ve read the subtitles, and there’s no way to do it.”


With references to religion throughout “Bull Durham,” it should come as no surprise that Shelton’s own upbringing was key to the film’s development. Like yours truly, Shelton grew up Baptist, and he and I have BAs from Baptist colleges. We’re both out of date, but we can’t and won’t leave our roots.

“I haven’t found any lapsed or unexpired Baptists in Hollywood, anyone who’s been drenched before the bottom of the Jordan,” he says. “People who know me very well, their mouths agape. The further we move away from our upbringing, the more we admit its hold over us. We have to accept it, if not embrace it, make the best of it and get rid of it. There are definitely some great values ​​I got from my parents: honesty, hard work, and the kind of faith, even if the faith has changed, and a faith in humanity that is sometimes questioned.

Another reason Shelton’s movies might appeal to people who only claim to love sports is that his movies have vivacious, well-executed female protagonists, who are often older and often smarter than the men onscreen. For example, in “White Men Can’t Jump”, Rosie Perez convincingly plays a “Jeopardy!” champion, and “Bull Durham’s” Annie is a professor of literature whose breadth of knowledge eclipses that of an ingenue.

As a result, Sarandon, then 40, became a sex symbol.


While Shelton and many other filmmakers miss director Orion Pictures, who gave the world “Dances with Wolves” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” in “The Church of Baseball,” Shelton laments that a “leader of anonymous studio” wanted to fire him and Robbins.

“They didn’t like the way Susan looked. They kept saying the movie wasn’t funny. It’s not sexy. It’s not romantic. reads with Tim Robbins to whom I say, I am the godfather of their firstborn,” he laughs.

“She was 40 and it was written for a 40-year-old woman. Hollywood was not doing roles for 40-year-old women, which is still a problem. It was important that the character not be an ingenue but someone one who had been around and done things and had life experience. Susan fit the bill. There is a scene that was cut, about which there is a chapter in the book called “Kill Your Darlings” You learn that she’s been married many times, she’s tried every religion, she’s a schoolteacher, that’s just something that can’t exist for a 20-year-old, male or female.

Ultimately, Sarandon, Robbins and Costner received a career boost from the film, and fans began to flock to see the informal charm of minor league ball. Shelton picked up an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of “Bull Durham.”


Shelton says it’s harder to do his smaller character-driven projects without companies like Orion, thanks to corporate mergers.

“The job has changed dramatically,” he says. “It became a big business. It used to be that movies were a family business. Along with Warner Bros. and MGM, those companies were known around the world. Everyone knew the MGM lion around the world, but they were actually small businesses,” he said.

In turn, as “The Church of Baseball” illustrates, Shelton’s scripts tend to take place in as few places as possible, making them cheaper to shoot than a typical Marvel or DC movie. “I think 75% of the script for ‘Bull Durham’ [was] written for three locations, so you don’t waste your time and money moving equipment and loading and unloading trucks. That’s where the money goes in a movie,” Shelton said.

“The Church of Baseball” proves that Shelton can tell stories for print, which don’t need the green light from a studio or streamer, but like the athletes he follows, he can’t give up. He developed a comedy western series called “Wicked, Kansas” for Epix and a story of how hitting champion Pete Rose clashed with baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. The late commissioner was also a former president of Yale University and professor of Renaissance literature and the father of Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti.

Rose, whom Shelton met for her research, is in her 80s and more determined.

‘I WAS 37 FOR 114’

“There’s nothing you can talk about with him other than hitting,” Shelton said. “None. He’s never read a book. He’s never touched a T-shirt, but if you say, ‘How did you do against Gaylord Perry?’ He will say: “I was 37 for 114. I had nine doubles, and there are three strikeouts. Two were bad calls on the outside corner. It’s like ‘Rain Man’.”

The current success of “The Church of Baseball” demonstrates that there is still a market for Shelton’s work, even in a different medium.

“My novels are my screenplays,” he says. “This book was a bit of an accident. I had no intention of writing one, but the reception has been so phenomenal that the editor and publisher keep saying ‘What’s your next book ?’ And I said, “I have no idea. I have to write other screenplays and direct other films first.”

Another trust factor has inspired a younger generation of filmmakers. He and Quentin Tarantino load their movies with quoted jokes, and the young filmmaker has always acknowledged his debt.

“Quentin recently did a show where he was interviewed and brought up ‘Bull Durham.’ He said, ‘I don’t know anything about baseball, but after watching the movie, I felt I understood the game,’ Shelton said. “When he was still working [as] clerk at a video store, he sent me a handwritten letter after “The Best of Times” by (Roger Spottiswoode) and how much he loved it. I was the writer. He did not send a letter to the producer or the director. I still have it somewhere.”

Wild fireball Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh receives advice from veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) in Ron Shelton’s 1988 film “Bull Durham,” the filming of which is chronicled in Shelton’s new book “The Church of Baseball”.

Jerry B. Hatch