Book review: ‘Bull Durham’ fans, rejoice at ‘Church of Baseball’ | Books

Former minor league baseball player Ron Shelton wrote and directed a host of sports-themed movies, but it’s unlikely anyone told him they named their kids after the characters in “Tin Cup” or “White Men Can’t Jump” or even “Cobb”.

Bull Durham? It’s different. A couple once introduced Shelton to their young sons, Crash and Nuke. That might be more impressive than Sports Illustrated’s 2003 claim that the 1988 comedy starring Kevin Costner was the greatest sports movie of all time.

What’s really impressive, once you read Shelton’s behind-the-scenes recap, “The Church of Baseball,” is that “Bull Durham” didn’t end up in the minor leagues direct-to-video or just sent in the showers. Initially, too many people had too little faith in the film and the man behind it.

There were disputes over the casting of the lead roles, Costner as Crash, Susan Sarandon as Annie, and Tim Robbins as Nuke. Although Costner’s star is barely emerging, neither has been considered a box office draw. Teen comedy veteran Anthony Michael Hall was considered a better choice as the kick-off phenom completing the love triangle between Crash and Annie. However, all three – Costner, Sarandon and Robbins – were destined to win Oscars in standout careers.

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And there was conflict over Shelton himself, with some executives believing the first director was not up to the task. Somehow he managed to keep so many thoughtful cooks from spoiling his broth before it was even in the pot.

The dissension continued throughout filming. At one point, some people decided that the scene on the mound in which the teammates talk about anything but Nuke’s erratic pitching – “Chandeliers always make a nice gift” – should be cut. But test audiences and would-be fans would deem it the funniest moment in the film. Shelton credits actor Robert Wuhl for the line, just one example of how the film was a team effort and Shelton generously shared the credit.

At the heart of “The Church of Baseball” is not the cinema or the fights with the studio or even the insider’s point of view on baseball. It is the creative process. Unlike most making-of books, there are many pages dedicated to how Shelton designed the characters, developed a setting for a movie, sold a studio on it, then wrote and rewrote and rewrote the screenplay. And the creativity continued during filming, editing, music, costumes, and all the other things that go into making a movie. Luckily, creativity can be as fun as it is engaging, and “The Church of Baseball” is always both.

Of course, let’s move on to another baseball analogy: Doing “Bull Durham” was like lining up a ground ball at the end of the bat on the edge of the inside grass – a game that Shelton says looks easy but is in actually hard to do. Baseball and movie fans are glad he didn’t miss it.

Colin L. Johnson