BULL DURHAM: A Story of America's Favorite Pastimes

by Tori Brown

"It's all about sex and sport. What else is there?" became the tagline for the movie Bull Durham released by MGM in 1988.   The tagline is appealing, just like the movie. The screenplay was written and directed by Ron Shelton, and according to reporter Steve Wulf in Sports Illustrated , " Bull Durham captures the reality, the language and the humor of the game as no baseball film ever has." Shelton proved uniquely qualified to create a film depicting the baseball experience since he spent five years as a second baseman in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system.  

The picture stars Kevin Costner as "Crash" Davis, an aging catcher full of knowledge and passion for the game, Tim Robbins as Ebby "Nuke" LaLoosh, an inexperienced and wild pitcher, and Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy, a devoted fan and resident temptress for the Durham Bulls minor league team.  

Each year Annie chooses the player with the most potential on the team to become her sexual partner.   She remains faithful to the man during the season, and she tutors that player on baseball, poetry, and life. According to a line in the movie, her character has experienced some success, because there is a good chance that you will move up to the majors if Annie chooses you as her man of the season.

She narrows her choices to two men and invites them both to her home to explain her service. First is "Crash", a player who is both talented and full of insight into the game but who will probably never make it to the major leagues. Second is "Nuke", a pitcher with a brilliant arm but not much brain. He is so immature that he has not really grasped the greatness of his gift and his fortunate position.  A love triangle is created, and although Annie chooses "Nuke" as her partner for the season, "Crash" remains in Annie's thoughts and becomes the object of her desire.   

Along with the Bull Durham 's focus on the romantic and sexual relationships, the movie also looks at some classic baseball themes. These have been seen with a great deal of frequency and may seem cliché to some viewers, but a true baseball enthusiast enjoys seeing them again and again.  

The first is the older, wiser player taking the young stud under his wing. This was shown in the movie when "Crash" gives "Nuke" tips on topics such as: how to answer questions during interviews, how to stay calm on the mound, and how to enjoy the experience of playing baseball, and how to be thankful for his athletic talent.  

The second is the focus on superstition. Announcers and fans have long talked about curses and streaks with relation to their favorite athletic teams and especially in baseball. This is presented using several methods during the movie. First, there is the superstitious baseball player, Jose, who rubs his bat with a voodoo necklace to ensure a hit. Later in the movie, he believes his girlfriend has put a curse on his glove, and he requests a rooster be brought to the ballpark to sacrifice and take off the hex. The idea of the streak is also presented through the character of "Nuke". He has his first win with the team after abstaining from sex with Annie. After that point he refuses her advances until his winning streak ends.

From a historical perspective, the movie offers some insight into the culture of the 1980s.   This is especially noticeable with regard to the characters' dress. "Crash" sports the time-appropriate bomber jacket, and Annie dons the seductive off the shoulder blouses with frequency. Beyond the wardrobe, the cultural perspective on smoking can be seen. The coach of the team is continually lighting up both inside the locker room office and inside the team's bus. This would not be tolerated in today's "smoke free" environment. The language used with regard to sex in the movie would also not have been permitted in earlier generations, but is used with abandon in this movie, accounting for some of the film's success and reflecting the new sexual and linguistic freedom of the eighties.

In addition to cultural history, the movie offers the historian interested in sports a deeper visual introduction to the minor leagues. The minor league ballparks used in the film could be recognized by any minor league team, while the depiction of the team bus and hotel accommodations for minor league players was also bleakly factual.

As a whole, this movie is highly enjoyable, and even entertaining for its humor and sex. For baseball fans, this movie is a must-see, unless you are strictly looking for a documentary about baseball or a game newsreel. In that case, you may feel that too much time was devoted to the romantic and sexual plots and the baseball content should have been expanded. If you are not offended by some colorful language and sexual content, it is highly recommended. For a more family oriented alternative that deals with similar themes, you could view Major League (made in 1989) from Paramount.  

Overall, the quality of Bull Durham makes it one of the greatest baseball films of recent decades.   It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing and Original Screenplay in 1989. That same year it won Best Film from the Boston Society of Film Critics, Best Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Best Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics, Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle, and Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen from the Writers Guild of America.

For additional information or study on minor league baseball viewers can check out the following books: More Than a Ballgame: An Inside Look at Minor League Baseball by Sam Lazzaro; Minor Miracles: The Legend and Lure of Minor League Baseball by David Pietrusza; Small-Town Heroes: Images of Minor League Baseball by Hank Davis; and Recall Life in the Minor League by Mark Leinweaver and Ryan Bradley, and for a documentary study they can view Touching The Game, The Story of The Cape Cod Baseball League produced in 2004 and Hopes and Dreams in Minor League Baseball: A Season with the Williamsport Crosscutters directed by Steven Patterson and released in 2001.