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Ron Shelton remembers his movie 'Bull Durham' in new memoir 'The Church of Baseball'


Anytime anybody asks, what's the greatest baseball movie of all time, chances are you'll hear "Bull Durham."


KEVIN COSTNER: (As Crash Davis) I was in the show for 21 days once - the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handled your luggage in the show. Somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice. The ballparks are like cathedrals. The hotels all have room service. The women all have long legs and brains.

SIMON: Ron Shelton's 1988 rom-com, coming-of-age and nearing-middle-age film focused on a minor league baseball team - Kevin Costner, the aging catcher Crash Davis, brought in to tutor Nuke LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, the young phenom with a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head. They become two points of a triangle with Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy, the poetry-spouting fan who tutors a new rookie each season. Ron Shelton, a former minor leaguer himself, of course, wrote and directed the film I won't diminish by calling it a classic. And he now has a memoir about its making, "The Church Of Baseball." Ron Shelton joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

RON SHELTON: Scott, I'm just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ballclub.

SIMON: (Laughter) One of the great cliches that Crash Davis tutored young Nuke LaLoosh in how to say that. Help us appreciate how hard to sell "Bull Durham" was because producers often don't hear, oh, a baseball movie - great. That'll make zillions.

SHELTON: Baseball movies are very difficult to get off the ground because there's no foreign sales for them. In the marketplace of movie-making, you need to sell foreign tickets. And people say, well, Japan, but Japan only buys a movie after it's a hit. Venezuela is not much of a market. There really - it's got to work in the States, or it won't work at all.

SIMON: Why did you set the story among minor leaguers? Was that strategic?

SHELTON: Write what you know, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

SHELTON: I mean, that was my life. And I think it's a lot more interesting to get - to follow people trying to get into the spotlight than most of them are once they get into the spotlight. There's just more drama, more heartache, more pathos in Class A ball than in the major leagues, staying at five-star hotels.

SIMON: Yeah. One of the drawbacks of making a convincing baseball film - and you write about this in "The Church Of Baseball" - is that some of the best actors don't look like they're convincing when they actually have to do something on the field.

SHELTON: No, I didn't like sports movies my whole life for two reasons. One is it was clear the actor couldn't play. And two, somebody would also always hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, usually with the bases loaded, to win the World Series, and that just never happened.

SIMON: Well, it happened once - 1960, Bill Mazeroski. But go ahead. Yeah.

SHELTON: Yes, it's almost unheard of. Games end with ground balls to short, like life - you know, a pop-up to second, game over. So it was very important to me to make a movie about what life is really like in the minors, which is more like what life is like anywhere doing anything.

SIMON: Tell us about the audition process. Kevin Costner kept a mitt in his car.

SHELTON: Well, Kevin was about to become a star. He hadn't quite made it yet. But I heard he was a great athlete. And I met with him, and he liked the script, and he said he wanted to do it. And I said, you've got it. The part is yours. And he says, but first I have to try out for you. And I said, you've already got the part. And he insisted that we go out to Sepulveda Boulevard in LA, where there's a batting cage for a quarter and miniature golf courses and video arcades. And we went out there, and we played catch in the parking lot. And then we started putting quarters in the machine. And he hit line drives right-handed, and then he hit line drives left-handed. And I went to a payphone - 'cause this was before there were alternatives - and called the studio and said, hire this guy. He's unbelievable.

SIMON: Yeah. There is a Crash Davis - or was a Crash Davis out there in the world.

SHELTON: Yeah, I talk about this in the book. I actually find solace from reading old record books for some reason. And before I ever wrote the script, I was looking at the Carolina League record book, which goes back 100 years, more than 100 years now. And I saw that in 1947 or something, a guy named Crash Davis hit 50 doubles for the Durham Bulls. And I thought, Crash Davis is the coolest name ever. I wish that was my name. And I hit a lot of doubles. That was the kind of ballplayer I was. I wasn't a power hitter. And so I - he became the name of my character before I'd written him. And then on the first day of shooting, a guy named Crash Davis, the real Crash Davis, shows up. So not only was he not long gone, he was still living in Durham. He was beautifully dressed.

SIMON: Yeah, he was a real corporate executive, wasn't he?

SHELTON: And he'd been a Duke graduate who played for Connie Mack in the majors, and then he'd served in the war. I mean, this guy was a hero. And then because he was in his 30s, he wanted to play a little bit more, so he played two or three more years for the Durham Bulls just 'cause he loved it in Durham. And that's where I found his name. And we became good friends. And he went on a speaking circuit thereafter called I'm the Real Crash Davis.

SIMON: Crash Davis gives a famous speech in the film. And you write in this book about when you're writing a script, the importance of a good speech to attract a name actor. Could you tell us the thinking that goes on?

SHELTON: Well, it's - that's fairly mercenary and Machiavellian, but yeah, I mean, stars need good speeches, and they need words to say that they can identify with and know that they can hit out of the park. And I thought, I better give this guy a great speech early on. And I wrote the I believe in speech. And I wrote it about as fast as I can type. I won't quote it here because this is a family show, but...

SIMON: Well, I'm going to do it. I'm going to do the speech.

SHELTON: You can do it. And Kevin liked it. And I always thought it was a bit overdone, overwritten, self-conscious. But we did it in one take, and he did it so casually that it didn't underline itself. It didn't point at itself.

SIMON: I would like to audition for you, Mr. Shelton.

SHELTON: Go ahead. You want to go to the batting cage, or what do we do here?

SIMON: No, no, I'm going to do Crash Davis's speech.


SIMON: I believe in the soul, the - something I can't say on the radio, the another thing I can't say on the radio, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curveball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve. And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Good night.

SHELTON: Hire this guy - fabulous. We'll go on the senior circuit and do it.

SIMON: (Laughter) That's not exactly the answer I was looking for, but all right. Thank you. Is "Bull Durham" ultimately a baseball movie?

SHELTON: I think baseball's the background. It's really about a reckoning, people's coming - a part of their lives where they have to make hard choices. Crash - as I say in the book, it's about a guy who loves something more than it loves him back. And I think that's universal and resonates with people outside of baseball.

SIMON: Yeah.

SHELTON: I think that's why the movie may still work for people.

SIMON: Ron Shelton - his memoir, "The Church Of Baseball: The Making of 'Bull Durham': Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, And A Hit" - thank you so much for being with us.

SHELTON: Thank you, Scott. My pleasure. And I'm sorry about the Cubs. I don't know what else to say.

SIMON: Well, I've been hearing that for most of my life, with the exception of 2016. But it's a way of life. What can I tell you?

SHELTON: Yes. I will keep bringing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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