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‘The Church of Baseball’ goes deep on ‘Bull Durham’

July 20, 2022
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It can be fun to get an idea of how the sausage is made. That isn’t always the case (or casing, if you catch my meaning), but sometimes the story of how something came to be is almost as interesting as the thing itself.

Take movies, for instance. One imagines that most of the time, the moviemaking process is pretty straightforward. Sure, there will be pitfalls and obstacles along the way – particularly on the indie end of things – but most of those issues tend to be fairly similar regardless of the film. However, there are certain movies – beloved and otherwise – whose origin stories are more than the usual.

Ron Shelton is a screenwriter, director and producer who has had great success in Hollywood over the years. He’s worked on plenty of different types of movies, but his calling card has long been sports movies – no surprise for a guy who spent five years playing minor league baseball before turning to the silver screen. And it is that minor league experience that led to his first sports film, one of the greatest baseball movies of all time – “Bull Durham.”

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), Shelton tells the story of how this iconic film came to be. It’s a story of his own journey as well, his love of the game and his experience within it, all of which led to him taking a shot at telling a sports story unlike any other that we’d seen before.

Shelton notes the many struggles that came with trying to get this movie made, from finding someone to finance it – did anyone care about baseball movies anymore? – to figuring out who would play the central trio of characters whose chemistry was key to the story’s success to making sure that the film was true to the ragtag renegade spirit of minor league baseball.

“The Church of Baseball” is a peek behind the curtain, to be sure; Shelton is upfront and honest about the process, both with regard to what worked and what didn’t … and how much fun everyone had along the way.

Ron Shelton’s connection to baseball runs deep. He played in college in the mid-1960s and was good enough to make a go of it in the minors. From 1967 through 1971, he rode buses all over the country, playing in rickety stadiums before sparse crowds. His dream was to make it to the majors, but it wasn’t to be – the highest level he ever reached was AAA, never managing to take that final step to the Show.

He would find his way into the entertainment industry, with a couple of screenplays that would wind up being made into movies. But the project that would wind up cementing his place in the Hollywood firmament was one that drew deeply on his own personal lived experiences – “Bull Durham.”

Despite the fact that it is considered by many to be one of the best sports movies ever made, “Bull Durham” was far from a sure thing. Studios had doubts about financing a baseball movie in general, let alone one led by a first-time director whose only credits were writing a couple of financial flops. And even when they got the go-ahead, it was an uphill battle. Shelton faced different fights for each of the three actors who would become his leads – Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins would all go one to become Hollywood royalty, but at the time, none were sure things.

Hell, even Shelton himself came under on-set scrutiny, with studio-aligned observers making mountains of molehills and setting unnecessary fires that Shelton and his team had to put out. All that, plus the slow ascent into theaters, dealing with the inevitable edits and changes that come with that process – the killing of darlings, as they say.

“The Church of Baseball” is a delight, a combination of insider observation and shaggy memoir. Shelton’s memories of this time are vivid and razor-sharp, resulting in a detailed picture of the realities behind getting this movie made. The disconnect between the film’s canonical status today and the uncertainty that surrounded it in the moment makes the story of its making all the more fascinating. Talk about inside baseball, you know?

The enduring nature of “Bull Durham” springs from its characters and its attitudes – the truth is that it features relatively little actual baseball for a baseball movie – so it’s a real treat to get a sense of how those pieces came together. Little anecdotes about how Costner wound up with the part or how Sarandon fought hard to get in the room. Shelton having to cut what he thought was the most important scene and fighting for one that executives thought inconsequential (the candlesticks scene, which is one of the most iconic moments in a movie full of them). It’s a wonderfully specific look at the process as viewed through the eyes of the guy making it happen.

“The Church of Baseball” offers equal appeal to lovers of baseball and movies, a book that breaks down an iconic work of great importance to both realms. Smart, funny and charmingly self-deprecating, it’s an absolute home run of a read.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 July 2022 15:47

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