Bull Durham is one of those enduring classics. The bawdy baseball comedy, which came out in 1988, boasts a sort of universal appeal. The movie, a Western in cleats, possesses a kind of rustic, ageless charm. Perhaps best known as the movie that brought stars Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins together, Bull Durham details the grimy day-to-day life of Minor League Baseball as seen through the eyes of its central characters: Annie Savoy, a philosophically inclined baseball groupie; Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, a talented but wild, immature pitching prospect; and Crash Davis, a veteran Minor League catcher chasing the Minor League home run record.
The movie opens with Annie’s famous “church of baseball” monologue, overlaid on photographs of past baseball legends and scenes of Annie getting ready for a baseball game. Annie, a well-known local “groupie,” picks a player to be her lover for the length of the season. As she prepares for the game, Annie states that she provides the player with life wisdom and confidence, while her chosen player offers her companionship and safety. Annie and a fellow groupie, Millie, not only sleep with the players but also avidly follow the team. The girls pack their own radar guns and relay helpful tips to struggling players. Annie and Millie are fixtures at the ballpark; it’s Millie who’s caught in the players’ bathroom with Ebby Calvin LaLoosh just minutes before the pitcher is meant to make his professional debut.
Ebby is a top prospect for the Durham Bulls’ parent club but is hampered by his arrogance and immaturity, in addition to his wildness. The Bulls soon bring in a veteran Minor League catcher, Crash Davis, to be something of a mentor to LaLoosh. The two clash immediately, with the brash pitcher chafing under the instruction of the blue-collar Davis. When Ebby shakes off his catcher’s signs, Crash tells the opposing batters what pitch is coming. When Ebby’s ego gets a bit too big, Crash is there to prick him with a sharp word and bring him back down to size.
When Ebby and Crash cross paths with Annie Savoy at a local bar, the bristly mentee-mentor relationship between the two men turns competitive as both are attracted to Annie who invites them over to her house. Crash refuses to compete with Ebby for Annie’s attentions though, offering a memorable speech on what he “believes” in, which piques Annie’s interest. Crash then walks out, stating that he is “too much of a veteran” to try out, leaving Ebby with Annie.
Annie and Crash both end up guiding the newly-nicknamed Nuke LaLoosh, taking him from a wild, irresponsible thrower and molding him into a professional pitcher. Annie works at expanding Nuke’s mind, educating him sexually, reading him poetry, and giving him life advice, while Crash continues to instruct Nuke in the ways of baseball.
After some ups and downs, in which Nuke continually shakes Crash off, Crash impresses an unforgettable bit of advice on Nuke: “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ballclub.” When Crash’s advice finally sinks in, Nuke begins to transform into a legitimate prospect, and the Durham Bulls begin reeling off wins. Unfortunately for Annie, Crash instructs Nuke not to sleep with Annie to keep the recent string of good luck going. When Annie catches wind, she angrily confronts Crash for interfering in her personal life. Crash and Annie are clearly attracted to each other and a better romantic match, but Annie is committed to Nuke for the season.
Soon, Nuke rides the Bulls’ hot streak—and his own string of strong performances—into a call-up to the Major League club. A jealous Crash, who’d only gotten a “cup of coffee” at the Major League level, gets drunk and confronts Nuke for taking his talent for granted. Crash attempts to fight Nuke in a scene reminiscent of their introduction but later overcomes his jealousy to impart some words of advice to Nuke on his call-up. Nuke’s call-up also signals the end of his and Annie’s relationship as, according to Annie, “when somebody leaves Durham, they don’t come back.”
Unfortunately, Nuke’s ascension to the Major Leagues means the club no longer has a need for his mentor, especially not with a hot-hitting prospect knocking on the door, and Crash is released. Crash, who’d contemplated walking away from baseball at the beginning of the movie, signs on with another team and plays long enough to surpass the Minor League home run record before retiring. He returns to Durham and Annie, where he tells her of his retirement. Annie “retires” too, telling Crash she’s ready to give up on her affairs, indicating an interest in committing to a relationship with Crash. The movie ends with the two dancing together in Annie’s living room.
One reason Bull Durham works so well, from a baseball standpoint, is that the movie was helmed by someone with deep baseball roots. Writer and director Ron Shelton himself was a former minor league player, and he drew on his own experiences in the Baltimore Orioles farm system to write the script. Shelton drew on real-life former Minor League teammates and opponents as inspiration to craft his characters, like Mike Ferraro, who was a Triple-A All-Star three years in a row but was buried in the minor leagues because he was blocked by a guy named Brooks Robinson. After his baseball career ended, Shelton returned to college for a Master of Fine Arts, before breaking through in L.A. as a screenwriter.
Another thing that helps give the film an air of authenticity is how realistic the baseball aspects are. The athletically inclined Kevin Costner played baseball in high school and tried out for the University of Texas baseball team (According to Kurt Russell, himself a former minor league baseball player, he had actually won the role of Crash but lost it to Costner while he was out of town). Tim Robbins had also played baseball, as a third baseman, and was weighing an offer to star in Eight Men Out when he won the role of LaLoosh by proving to the director, Shelton, that he could pitch a baseball. A former semi-pro baseball player was hired to coach the actors and turn them into believable baseball players, while the baseball players brought on to fill the fictional rosters were taught how to act. The relationship of Crash and Nuke was inspired by the experiences of a former teammate of Shelton’s, Joe Altobelli, who had to catch the legendarily wild Steve Dalkowski.
The movie is also buoyed by universal themes that stretch beyond the confines of baseball, its romantic subplot, witty dialogue, and the chemistry of its three leads. If any one of these pieces were missing from the puzzle, Bull Durham wouldn’t continually rank as one of the top sports movies of all time. It has a universal, enduring appeal that draws in fans from all walks of life, not just us avid baseball lovers.