At Play in the Church of Baseball: 'Bull Durham' at 35 | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

At Play in the Church of Baseball: ‘Bull Durham’ at 35

Bull Durham arrived in the summer of 1987 — 35 years ago this week — amid a wave of important baseball movies. The Natural had hit theaters three years earlier, while Field of Dreams, starring the same leading man Kevin Costner, would arrive two years later, and A League of Their Own three years after that. Eight Men Out, which hit theaters a few months after Bull Durham, told a story of a baseball scandal, albeit one from more than half a century earlier. 

However, writer-director Ron Shelton‘s Bull Durham was a very different take on the game — one that was a bit more honest. It’s not a movie about heroism or magical realism. Instead, it’s a bit more honest about baseball players and who they are.

Bull Durham acknowledges like few other such films, that getting laid is a big part of the baseball player experience. Jim Bouton’s memoir Ball Four, about two decades earlier, had exposed this part of the game. Yes, generations of fans periodically discover that a lot of the ballplayers they grew up watching — including the ones they looked up to when they were kids — may very well have been slimy degenerates. But also, love troubles have more to do with hot streaks and slumps than baseball historians have traditionally acknowledged. 

And also, its hero is a down-on-his-luck veteran catcher who’s still stuck in the minors. That’s Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a guy in his 30s — who once spent 21 days in “The Show” — who’s called back to the Class A Durham Bulls to tutor young pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who is talented but can’t get the ball over the plate. (The Bulls, with their fantastic D logo, were and are still an active minor league team.) 

Field of Dreams and Bull Durham don’t have much in common besides their leading man and common sport, as well as one more thing: Field of Dreams has been compared, including by Roger Ebert, to a religious picture in which the religion is baseball. Bull Durham begins with a monologue by Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) about how “I believe in the Church of Baseball.” 

Annie is a truly fantastic character, more than a mere love interest, and someone who picks a player each year to be both her lover and protégé. And her spiritual speaking, more than just a quirk, is an actual, sincere character trait. In a different era, Annie might have found work as a performance coach, possibly even for a major league team. 

She starts off with Nuke, who is simultaneously being mentored and coached by both her and Crash. Those goals eventually begin to diverge, when Nuke abstains from sex for a spell, leading to an unexpected hot streak. 

But she later drifts to Crash, as it’s clear they’re both struggling with the question of whether they’re too far up in years to keep doing what they’re doing. Sarandon was 41 when the film was released, Costner 33, and Robbins 29; Sarandon and Robbins would go on to date for an ensuing couple of decades. 

Costner also gets this memorable monologue listing his beliefs, which includes the exact opposite position on the Kennedy assassination that Costner would argue for in JFK three years later:

It’s unlikely that most minor league baseball players in the ’80s had read many books at all, much less enough of “the novels of Susan Sontag,” much less enough of them to form an opinion of them. 

Shelton was himself a former minor league ballplayer, and based the film, his directorial debut, on his experiences. Major League Baseball is unlikely to ever establish a Bull Durham Game, like its Field of Dreams Game, but it would be sort of hilarious if they did. 

Among other subjects, the film is attuned to the day-to-day drudgery of the minors, including getting over slumps, dealing with poor attendance, and the tension between Christian ballplayers and their hard-partying teammates. And lollygaggers: 

Bull Durham is streaming on Max. 

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