'Bull Durham' in reel life
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

On Tuesday, a new DVD version of "Bull Durham" came out, with some goodies for hard-core fans of the film: a "Making of" documentary, voiceover commentary from director Ron Shelton and actors Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner, and a few trailers. The extra stuff is just OK, though -- don't expect major revelations or extra scenes or a "director's cut." Do expect, though, to be entertained.

Bull Durham
There are groupies in the minors, but not many as old as Susan Sarandon's "Annie Savoy" in "Bull Durham."
You might be aware of Shelton's baseball credentials -- he played six years in the minor leagues. According to Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com, Shelton, a second baseman, played from 1966 to 1971, touching the minor-league bases from Bluefield of the Class A Appalachian League to Rochester of the Triple-A International League (his best season seems to have been 1969, when he got 145 hits in 523 at-bats, hit six homers, and drove in 54 runs for Stockton of the California League). Shelton also hung out with the Bulls for three months before making the film.

So, he should have gotten life in the minor leagues right. How did he do? Fairly well, according to most folks. "Bull Durham"is more accurate than most baseball movies, but it ain't perfect.

Here's how "Bull Durham," the "reel" version, stacks up to the real version of minor-league baseball:

In reel life: Kevin Costner plays the aging Bulls catcher, "Crash" Davis.
In real life: Lawrence "Crash" Davis was a second baseman who played for the Bulls in 1948 (and also played for the Philadelphia A's from 1940-42), but the movie is not about him. Shelton has always made it clear that he spotted his name in a record book and decided to use it, but that's all of the "real" Crash Davis there is in the film.

In reel life: Susan Sarandon plays Annie, a local woman who chooses one Durham Bull to bed each season.
In real life: "Baseball Annie" is a traditional nickname for baseball groupies.

In reel life: In the opening sequence, Annie says, "What I give them lasts a lifetime. What they give me lasts 142 games."
In real life: The Durham Bulls played 140 games in 1987, finishing with a 65-75 record.

In reel life: Annie makes a pretty big deal of pointing out that there are 108 beads in a rosary and 108 stitches in a baseball.
In real life: There are, indeed, 108 stitches in each major-league baseball. The stitches are sewn by hand, by factory workers in Costa Rica and other countries who are paid about $50 a week.

In reel life: Tim Robbins plays a pitcher -- Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh -- who throws mid-90s heat.
In real life: Growing up in New York, Robbins played lots of sandlot ball -- but he played third base. In a 1992 interview, Robbins claimed to have hit 85 mph on the radar gun during the filming of "Bull Durham," and the movie's promotional material says Robbins was good. Bill Miller, the Bulls assistant GM and groundskeeper in 1988, who was there during the filming, said this wasn't true. "The guy was almost hopeless on the mound," Miller said. "The first time I saw him try to pitch, he sort of stood behind the mound, took a couple of steps up and launched himself off the rubber as if he were throwing a shot put."

In reel life: The major leagues are referred to frequently as "The Show."
In real life: Maybe a few did, but most minor-leaguers didn't call it "The Show." "I've never heard it called ‘The Show,' " Arkansas Travelers owner Bert Parke told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1988. "I've heard it called 'The Big Club.' "

In reel life: During a sex scene in Annie's bedroom, Tim Robbins says he doesn't want to take off his socks, because "it's cold in here." And through much of the film, Annie wears stockings.
In real life: In the Durham area, the average high temperature for July and August is 88; the average low, 68. Mark I. Pinsky of the Los Angeles Times visited Durham in July 1988 and wrote that "locals" said the movie got this wrong. "Durham's oppressive summer heat and humidity make it as unlikely that a character such as Robbins' would hesitate to take off his sox (sic) as it would be for the Sarandon character to wear stockings."

In reel life: Annie pronounces Durham "DOOR-um."
In real life: Again, according to Pinsky, it's either "derm" or "duh-rum." Calling it "Door-um" marks you immediately as an outsider, or a newly transplanted Northerner.

Kevin Costner
There's not much chance of a veteran like Crash Davis getting sent all the way down to Class A ball.
In reel life: A radio announcer is shown re-creating a Bulls road game.
In real life: According to radio historian Elizabeth McLeod, the Pirates were the last major-league team to regularly re-create games on radio -- and they last did so in 1954. But, McLeod wrote, minor-league teams regularly re-created games through the 1960s. By 1987, very few minor-league teams were broadcasting re-creations.

In reel life: A plywood bull would snort smoke from its nose and lift its tail when a Bulls player hit a homer.
In real life: The Bulls didn't have a plywood bull in the outfield -- until the movie company gave it to the team as a gift after the shooting was over.

In reel life: There are gobs of Bulls groupies.
In real life: Players say there are some groupies in the lower minors, but not that many, and few as old as Annie. Pete Palermo, an Orioles minor-leaguer, told the L.A. Times in 1988, "Yeah, we've got baseball groupies. They just get a little more attractive as you go to each higher level. Most of them are a lot younger than Annie. In rookie leagues, the girls who'd come see us were serious jail bait."

In reel life: Nuke LaLoosh has sex with a groupie in the locker room.
In real life: "There is no way that would happen in our locker room," said Mike Bell, a real Durham Bull, after watching the movie when it came out. Several other minor-leaguers also voiced disbelief at this scene. The AP's Tom Foreman Jr., paraphrasing 1988 Bulls manager Grady Little, wrote, "Anyone caught in the throes of passion before a game … likely won't be playing in that or any other game for some time."

In reel life: The premise of the movie is that a veteran like Crash Davis would play A ball after being demoted from Triple-A.
In real life: Almost all players -- especially old-timers like Crash -- quit before accepting such a major demotion. "I've never seen it happen where they bring back an old fella like that, teaming him up with a young guy," Travelers owner Bert Parke said in 1988.

In reel life: An assistant coach says, during a game, "C'mon, babe. Humm-babe. Throw strikes, kid. Right now, babe."
In real life: Some players say it's unlikely you'll hear such chatter at a pro game. But, writes Paul Dickson in "The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary," the term "humm-babe" is "a unit of chatter that permeates every level of the game from the school yard to the major leagues. Roger Craig of the San Francisco Giants used it so much that during the 1987 season Sports Illustrated termed it 'a cult phrase in San Francisco.' "

In reel life: The Bulls home park is painted green.
In real life: Durham Athletic Park, circa 1987, was painted blue.

In reel life: In the first bar scene, Tim Robbins hits the dance floor and does a wild, awkward-looking dance.
In real life: His dancing was carefully planned -- Paula Abdul was flown down to choreograph the scene.

In reel life: LaLoosh is promoted from A ball to the majors in the span of a few months.
In real life: It's almost unheard of -- especially for a pitcher who struggled part of the season in A ball -- to make such a jump.

In reel life: Often, the Bulls' home park is portrayed as about half full.
In real life: Durham was the highest-drawing Class A team in 1987 (the season in which the movie takes place), drawing 217,012, an average of more than 3,000 per home game -- or just about half of Durham Athletic Park's capacity.

In reel life: The Bulls have a live organist.
In real life: The Durham Athletic Park's organ music was on cassette.

In reel life: The Bulls have a mascot.
In real life: The Bulls had used the suit a few times before the film came out, and were planning to do so more after the movie was released. But the suit fit only someone 6-foot-7 or taller, making it a tough job to fill.

In reel life: During the movie, Crash, in order to teach Nuke a lesson, tells a batter what pitch is coming.
In real life: "I thought that was funny, but it wouldn't happen; you wouldn't tell a batter anything," Todd Zeile, then playing with the Arkansas Travelers, told the Democrat-Gazette in 1988.

In reel life: In several ballpark scenes, you can see steam as the actors speak.
In real life: It doesn't get that cold in Durham in the summer, but it does in October and November, when the baseball scenes were filmed. Actress Jenny Robertson, who plays Millie, the girl who gets around, says in the "Making of" documentary on the DVD that Shelton sometimes had the actors put ice in their mouths before scenes to prevent the steam effect.

In reel life: In the batting cage scene where Annie and Crash are plugging in quarters and hitting away, it looks like Susan Sarandon is a pretty good hitter.
In real life: She's hitting tennis balls being lobbed at her from eight feet away, says Shelton in his DVD commentary. What Shelton doesn't say is that, if you look closely enough, you can tell they're tennis balls.

In reel life: In one bus scene, Crash tutors Nuke on the fine art of spouting clichés. He tells him to write down: "We gotta play 'em one day at a time. ... I'm just happy to be here and hope I can help the ballclub. ... I just wanta give it my best shot and, Good Lord willing, things'll work out."
In real life: Rumor has it that baseball players do actually say such things.

In reel life: Crash continues playing, after being released by the Bulls, because he wants to break the minor-league career home run record of 246.
In real life: Lots of minor leaguers have hit more than 246 home runs, including Muscle Shoals and Joe Baumann, who holds the minor-league single-season record with 72 dingers in 1954 for the Roswell (N.M.) Rockets of the Longhorn League.

In reel life: At the end of the film, Annie says, "Walt Whitman once said, 'I see great things in baseball. It's our game -- the American game.' He said, 'It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.' You could look it up."
In real life: We looked it up, and quickly gave up, but then went directly to Whitman expert and University of Iowa Professor Ed Folsom, who replied that the quote originated from an 1888 discussion with Whitman's friend and disciple Horace Traubel. According to Traubel, Whitman said to him, "I like your interest in sports -- ball, chiefest of all -- baseball particularly: baseball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character. Sports take people out of doors, get them filled with oxygen -- generate some of the brutal customs (so-called brutal customs) which, after all, tend to habituate people to a necessary physical stoicism. We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race."

Folsom, who has a chapter called "Whitman and Baseball" in his book "Walt Whitman's Native Representations," added, "His best baseball quote is another 1888 comment to Traubel: Traubel had told Whitman that baseball has become 'the hurrah game of the republic,' and Whitman says, 'That's beautiful: the hurrah game! Well -- it's our game: that's the chief fact in connection with it: America's game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere -- belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.' "

"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.



Jeff Merron Archive

Reel Life: "Hoosiers"

Closer Look: Taking your Wonderlics

Closer Look: Minds, bodies and soul patches

Closer Look: Do pitchers and catchers get along?

Closer Look: The Love Triangle: Michael, Phil and Kobe

Closer Look: Pro Bowl goes Hawaii

Closer Look: Hail to the Redskins

Closer Look: Overthrowing HR kings isn't easy

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index