Excerpts from the upcoming book, “NO BULL: The Real Story of the Rebirth of a Team and a City” by Ron Morris
Lights, Camera, Action!
When the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike prior to the 1972 season, the result was the cancellation of spring training. The strike extended 13 days into the regular season, costing the major leagues 86 games.
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The strike also cost at least one minor-league player his dream of one day playing for the Baltimore Orioles. Ron Shelton was a mid-level prospect in the Baltimore organization, having advanced to Triple-A Rochester for the 1971 season. He batted a respectable .260 that season as a dependable backup to regular second baseman Donato Fazio.
Shelton was realistic about his standing with the Orioles. Davey Johnson was cemented at second base with the big club. Bobby Grich was a budding star in the system, and Bob Bailor was on the way. So when spring training was cancelled in ’72, Shelton evaluated his future in the game and determined it was time to go back to school.
If nothing else during his five seasons of professional baseball, Shelton took away a new-found affection for motion pictures. When you are stationed in such minor-league outposts as Bluefield, West Virginia, and Stockton, California, there often is no better way to wile away time than by attending matinee shows at the local theater.
“I could go to a movie every day and get out of the lousy motel or hotel, and often it was the only air-conditioned place in town,” Shelton said. “I sort of started going to movies indiscriminately and I fell in love with movies.”
Shelton also began to romanticize about writing his own movie manuscript, one with minor-league baseball as the backdrop to a story about life in the game. He certainly was not the first to recognize that nearly every sports-themed movie to that point carried a similar story line and rarely, if ever, strayed from the field of play. Essentially, there were no sports movies about the lives surrounding the games, and all seemed to focus on the cheerful endings of a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, clinching touchdown in the final seconds or come-from-behind victory in basketball.
Shelton had other ideas because he believed there was more to sports than what was being portrayed in motion pictures. He could write about a world in sports that he knew better than anyone else in the movie business because he had experienced it.
But breaking into the film-writing business proved to be more challenging to Shelton than climbing minor-league baseball’s ladder to the major leagues. Shelton was selected in the 39th round of the 1966 Major League Baseball Draft by the Orioles out of Westmont (California) College. A year later, he returned to school to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature.
Then, upon leaving pro baseball, Shelton returned to graduate school at the University of Arizona where he earned a master’s of fine arts degree in visual arts. Afterward, he moved back to Southern California where he pursued a career as a painter/sculptor and worked a variety of jobs — house painter, carpenter, handyman, landscape flunky — for nearly a decade. He dabbled in screenwriting in his off hours.
By the mid-1980s, Shelton had the shell of a manuscript titled “The Player To Be Named Later” and was ready to present it to a film studio — namely to Thom Mount, then the young director of Universal Studies. Over the years, Shelton had developed a friendship with Mount, and Shelton was aware of Mount’s interest in baseball through minority ownership in several minor-league teams.
Shelton’s pitch to Mount was simple: The movie was Lysistrata in the minor leagues. Lysistrata was an ancient Greek play in which the title character convinces the women of her country to withhold sexual favors to their husbands until they negotiate peace to end the Peloponnesian War. Shelton said his story would be told by a woman who is wooed by both the pitcher and catcher on the team. It had to be the team’s battery because they are the only players on a baseball team who actually talk to each other.
Mount liked the premise, and told Shelton to develop the story further.
“It wasn’t very good, but it spoke to me,” Mount said of the original script and how it made him recall his days attending minor-league games while growing up in Durham. “Watching those guys, with the young guys on the way up and the old guys trying to stay in the game on the way down. You see that as a kid and it’s very affecting, or it was for me anyway, very affecting. I thought there was an emotional center in this. It would have resonance to people.”
Mount was born to Lillard and Bonnie Mount while his father was attending law school at Duke University. His father later became a successful and prominent attorney in Durham with an unabashed love of minor-league baseball, more specifically the Durham Bulls. Heaven on earth for the young Mount was sipping a Coca-Cola and eating a hot dog at Durham Athletic Park with his father and his father’s friends. Not only did Mount have fond memories of running free in the old ballpark, but also watching the likes of budding stars such as Dick McAuliffe in 1959, and Gates Brown in 1961, when the Bulls were a Detroit Tigers affiliate, and Rusty Staub in 1962 when Durham was a farm club of the Houston Colt .45s.
Mount left Durham at age 16, months before his scheduled graduation from Durham High School. He earned an undergraduate degree from Bard College in upstate New York, then accepted a painting scholarship to attend graduate school at California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles during its first year of operation in 1970.
While in graduate school, Mount began working in the movie business under the legendary Roger Corman, who was known as the Pope of Pop Cinema because of his work on independent films. Like anyone attempting to break into Hollywood, Mount had his turn at reading scripts, including some for actress Jane Fonda. In early 1973, he was a reader at Universal Studios and an assistant to one of its mid-range vice presidents, who turned many projects over to Mount. He also had support from the highly respected Lew Wasserman, chairman of MCA/Universal.
Wasserman saw Mount as a future executive and put the aspiring star in charge of studio relationships with such luminaries as Edith Head, Alfred Hitchcock and Paul Newman. Along the way, Mount worked on such films as “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” and “Car Wash.” The former movie told the story of a Negro League barnstorming team, and the latter proved to be a box office hit about the day in the life of minority employees at a car wash.
Mount became known early on as a white man producing black movies. More importantly, he was on the cutting edge of infusing black talent into every aspect—from screen writing to acting to producing—of what previously was a nearly lily-white motion picture business. That the movies were making money as well made Mount somewhat of a young sensation.
“Hollywood respects nothing so much as cash coming in over the transom,” Mount said. “If that happens, they think they know what you’re doing.”
Mount knew enough of what he was doing to be named director of Universal Studios in 1974 at the tender age of 26, earning the tag “baby mogul” by Time magazine.
A couple of years later, Mount fielded a telephone call from an old friend and baseball fanatic, Van Schley.
“Listen, I think we should buy a baseball team,” Schley told Mount.
“Like what?” Mount, a bit perplexed, responded.
“Well, there is a C League team in Texas called the Texas City Stars,” Schley said. “They need $10,000 in cash and we need to take on $10,000 to $12,000 in debt.”
Each of five investors, including Mount, put up $5,000. Texas City competed in the Class A Lone Star League, which was composed of six teams independent of major-league affiliations. The 1977 season proved to be Schley’s foray into independently operated baseball leagues and teams, and he later became the pioneer of teams operating outside the boundaries of organized professional baseball.
The Texas City Stars were not exactly a smashing success in their only year of operation. Al Gallagher, 31 years old and just four years removed from his final days in the major leagues, both played and managed the club to a 35-41 record and last-place finish in the three-team North Division. Fewer than 350 fans on average attended the home games.
At the time, Mount had Willie Nelson under contract to develop movies based on his albums and coerced the great country singer and songwriter to sing the national anthem at one of Texas City’s home games. Even that did not help the gate and the Stars’ final season attendance figure reached a meager 12,305.
In the end, the entire league folded when the Corpus Christi Seagulls refused to compete in the playoffs for financial reasons. That inauspicious debut into baseball ownership did not deter Mount from future investments in the game with Schley, who later on also roped movie star Bill Murray into part ownership of several teams from Utica, New York, to Amarillo, Texas, to Anderson, South Carolina, to Bellingham, Washington.
In 1979, Mount received another phone call from Schley about investment in a minor-league club. Schley explained that an aspiring writer from North Carolina had recently left the Atlanta Braves and needed investors in the rejuvenation of the Durham Bulls. Schley and Mount each agreed to be minority stock holders in Miles Wolff’s club by again contributing $5,000 each.
Mount could not possibly turn down an opportunity to obtain part-ownership of his hometown club. As a youngster hanging out at Durham Athletic Park, Mount learned an appreciation for the struggles of minor-leaguers attempting to realize their dream of one day playing in the big leagues. His father also taught him the nuances of the game, from situations and strategies to the drama that often builds from the first inning to the last.
So, anytime over the years that Shelton or Schley or Wolff pitched the game of baseball to Mount, it was sweet, sweet music to the movie director’s ears.
“The thing about baseball that struck Ron and me and Van and Miles is that it’s not a sport, and it’s not a game, it is in fact a kind of crucible, an X-ray for the totality of the human experience,” Mount said during a 2015 interview in what amounted to an unrehearsed soliloquy on the game. “It speaks to all of the decisions we all have to make, everywhere in our lives, over and over again, even inside every game, and it’s filled with ethics and quandaries and opportunities and failures.
“All of that weaves together an educational wheel, which is the genius of baseball. It has none of the cut-and-dried brutality of football. It has none of the testosterone nonsense of ice hockey. It has very little of the complex strategy of tennis, for instance. But, somebody used to say to me when I’d say I work in Hollywood, and these people who are disparaging of Hollywood—and there are many of those—well, ‘It’s not brain surgery.’
“I would say, ‘Yes, you’re right, it’s not brain surgery. It’s heart surgery.’ It’s much more fundamental to the human condition than brain surgery. That’s the way I feel about baseball. Of all the sports, I think baseball is heart surgery. I think it touches the heart. It eliminates the dark for us and gives us something we can hold onto that’s memorable over multiple generations.”
All of that allure of baseball began to shine through with each of the re-writings of Shelton’s original screenplay that he presented to Mount earlier. Sometime in late 1985 or early 1986, Shelton telephoned Mount, who was in France working on Roman Polanski’s film “Frantic.”
“I got it figured out,” Shelton told Mount.
“What does that mean?” Mount responded.
“Well, here’s the thing, it’s not just young guys on the way up and old guys on the way down. It’s a girl in the middle who is sleeping with both of our guys and trying to make up her mind.
“OK, great. Deal. Done. Now you’re talking.”
Mount knew the movie project was a huge gamble in Hollywood. First, it was about baseball, which nobody in the motion picture business at the time believed was worth producing. It also was about minor-league baseball, which had even less appeal to Hollywood producers. Finally, Shelton’s script was counter to the traditional sports story line where everyone lived happily ever after.
“He jumped off the cliff,” Shelton said of Mount’s belief in the script, “and we jumped off it together.”
Mount first needed a director for the still unnamed movie. Then came selection of actors and a site to begin filming. Shelton had done second-unit directing on occasion, but had never been in charge of a film. No matter, Mount determined that no one could interpolate the script better than the man who wrote it.
Shelton would be the director, and Mount sent him on a scouting mission of minor-league cities in the Class A Carolina League and South Atlantic League. Shelton flew to Raleigh-Durham, rented a car and roamed around North and South Carolina with stops in Anderson, Asheville, Charleston, Columbia, Durham, Kinston, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
“My big concern was had the minor leagues changed since I had played in them because the major leagues had changed dramatically,” Shelton said. “The major leagues had become big money. Guys had become very distant, had agents and publicists. Major league baseball players used to be regular guys, and suddenly they had become celebrities and had become off-putting in many cases.
“I discovered, immediately, the minor leagues hadn’t change a bit. They made no money. It was unglamorous. You could still talk to the girls you were trying to get a date with in the stands. You could send notes. Everybody was real close. You knew people in the town. All of that stuff hadn’t changed. The stork kind of hung over everybody, so you could get released at any second. Everybody was a dreamer and most of the dreams didn’t come true.”
Mount swore to himself not to unduly influence Shelton in his decision about where the movie would be filmed. Shelton needed no input. He found everything he wanted in Durham. He liked the idea that Durham was rundown with vacated tobacco warehouses and boarded up downtown storefronts. He found a down-and-out, minor-league town that represented his story well.
Shelton also liked that fans could still walk to games from nearby neighborhoods. Vacant warehouses could be converted to studios, thus eliminating the cost of transporting sets around the city during filming. Durham Athletic Park was perfect, a cozy ballpark with surrounding buildings tight to the outfield fences. It personified a small-town atmosphere.
Mount could then work on a name for the movie. He liked an indirect link from the movie to its title. So, he would not name a movie about a meteor crashing to earth, “Meteor.” He had just named a soon-to-be-released movie about the drug-dealing community, “Tequila Sunrise.” He wanted a title name that suggested a context that was more memorable than obvious.
“Bull Durham” it would be.
“What I liked about Bull Durham is they are the Durham Bulls,” Mount said. “Bull Durham chewing tobacco — for those who remember — conjures up another era, another time, and Bull Durham is the city, and it’s as much about the city as it is about the ballgame.”
Mount and Shelton wanted a young, up-and-comer as the lead character, and Kevin Costner was on their A list. Hollywood already had recognized Costner as a rising star, even though he had been cut out of the film “The Big Chill.” Costner’s credits included “Silverado,” but not in a lead role. He had two movies in the can: “No Way Out,” and “The Untouchables.”
Shelton knew Costner’s agent, J.J. Harris, and presented her with the script. Harris loved it and turned it over to Costner. When Costner read it, he wanted to show off his athletic skills to Shelton and the two met at a batting cage. Costner wanted the role of “Crash Davis,” the aging career minor-leaguer who was on his last legs as a pro baseball player, and Shelton was impressed by how Costner could hit a baseball.
Despite stories over the years that several other big-name actors, such as Kurt Russell and Harrison Ford, were approached about the lead role, Shelton said Costner was the only actor who was ever considered.
In need of financial backing, Mount and Shelton pitched the movie to Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal, Tri-Star and Disney. Every studio turned down the movie. One studio director said he might accept the movie if Mount dumped Costner and put someone else in the lead role. Fox’s director said the proposed budget needed to be slashed in half, because “no one would ever see this movie,” according to Mount. Generally, Mount was told the movie lacked commercial appeal, and it could not attract a foreign audience, which was a prerequisite at the time.
Finally, Mount took the script to Orion, which had taken a liking to Costner, and three years earlier had produced “Under Fire,” which was co-written by Shelton and Clayton Frohman. Orion allocated a rather paltry $9 million for producing the movie, and allowed only an eight-week shooting schedule. The studio did grant Shelton much creative freedom in producing the movie.
The movie now had a start date and enough financing to begin making offers and start auditioning. The story of how Shelton landed Susan Sarandon as “Annie Savoy,” the beautiful girl who was wooing both the player on his way up and the player on his way down, has taken on a life of its own over the years. It has been reported numerous times that several actresses, including Kay Lenz, Ellen Barkin and Kim Bassinger, turned down offers for the lead role.
Several actresses did audition, and Shelton was impressed by their performances. But the studio kept changing the list of “acceptable actresses for lead role,” and Shelton believed he was dealing with a moving goalpost. The final casting decision was made by committee, and Sarandon was not on the original list.
Finally, the studio added Sarandon, and she agreed to fly from Italy to California with her young daughter to audition. She won over the audience and, according to Shelton, was the only actress offered the lead role.
Next, the movie needed an actor to play the role of a young, budding star on his way to the big leagues. This proved to be a most difficult task because not just any young actor would do. Shelton wanted someone very different from Costner in every way. His reasoning was that if the script had two players going after the same girl, he did not want them to be carbon copies of each other. They had to be different physically as well as in style and tone.
Tim Robbins fit the bill as “Nuke LaLoosh.” He stood 6-foot-5. Costner was 6-foot-1. Robbins was much more out-going than the reserved Costner. Robbins, at least in the movie, comes across as knee-jerk in his reactions on and off the field. Costner, in his role, is the wiser, more cautious decision-maker.
Costner’s character was named after Lawrence Columbus “Crash” Davis who played 148 games as a utility infielder for the Philadelphia Athletics over three seasons from 1940 to 1942. He was drafted into the Navy during World War II. Upon being discharged from the Navy in 1946, Davis returned to graduate school at Duke, his alma mater. Over the next seven seasons, Davis played 636 minor-league games in a failed attempt to get back to the big leagues. Shelton met Davis when the director was scouting for cities to locate the film, and liked the name. The two later became friends.
Annie Savoy was named in deference to women who hang around ballparks and are called “Baseball Annies” by the players. One day while Shelton was writing at his desk, he picked up a matchbook from “Savoy Bar,” which could have come from a famous hotel bar in London or perhaps a bar and restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Either way, it stuck as Annie’s last name.
For Nuke LaLoosh’s name, Shelton had to travel to Columbia, South Carolina, where he was preparing one evening to dine at the Radisson Hotel. As he sat down for a cocktail, the waiter greeted him.
“Hello, sir, my name is Ebby Calvin LaRouche, and I’ll be your server tonight,” the waiter said, “but you can just call me ‘Nuke.’ ”
Shelton jotted the name down on a napkin, wondering whether “Nuke” was spelled like a nuclear meltdown or like the nickname “Newk,” as in the former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe. He went with the former, then altered the last name because he did not want it associated with the radical leftwing LaRouche Movement authored in the 1970s and 1980s by Lyndon LaRouche.
Shelton worried ever after that the waiter would one day demand royalty fees from the movie for using his name as Robbins’ character. He never got the call.
Wolff was one of the few who got a sneak preview of the script, and he was intrigued. Like most who were curious about the filming of a movie at Durham Athletic Park, Wolff believed the interest would pass. He never believed the film would have any impact on his franchise, one way or the other.
“Once they started filming, I was less than enthused,” Wolff said. “Shoots kept being changed and in my minor-league heart, I felt they were spending stupid money.”
When he purchased the Bulls franchise from the Carolina League prior to the 1980 season, Wolff immediately changed the Durham Athletic Park color scheme, painting over the traditional staid green that characterized most minor-league parks since forever. By painting the park a shiny blue, Wolff had essentially spruced up the park. Movie producers wanted the old color, so before shooting began, the entire stadium and surrounding buildings were painted green. When filming was completed, the production company returned the stadium and all buildings back to Wolff’s blue color scheme.
Because filming was conducted in the dead of winter, the park’s Bermuda-grass playing surface had deteriorated from green to brown and was painted green. The frosty breath of several of the actors could be seen against the cold air in several scenes as temperatures occasionally dropped to the freezing mark. Extras acting as fans occasionally had to remove their winter jackets to make scenes look like summer nights.
To ensure the grandstands were filled for one scene, producers passed out pamphlets at a Pink Floyd concert in nearby Chapel Hill asking patrons to be part of a movie by coming to Durham Athletic Park afterward. In one movie scene, several fans are noticeable wearing Pink Floyd T-shirts.
Producers wanted a big crowd, in particular, for an afternoon scene and went to Wolff for help. He agreed to send a letter to all season-ticket holders, essentially advertising the film, but also offering a free hot dog to all those in attendance. Once the crowd of maybe 2,000 fans was in the park and ready to go, producers had a change of heart and decided it might be better if the filming was done at night. Wolff was told not to give away the hot dogs until that night, so the crowd might stay. He refused.
In one scene, Annie Savoy gives pitching instructions to Nuke LaLoosh. Originally, the scene was to be shot at the ballpark, but then Shelton decided it was best to shoot it at Savoy’s home, so in quick order, Bulls groundskeeper Bill Miller had a truck of dirt shipped to the nearby house and he constructed a pitching mound in the backyard.
Most of the Bulls involvement in the movie’s filming centered on Pete Bock, who had left the club as its general manager five seasons earlier to serve as the GM of the Hawaii Islanders in the Pacific Coast League. He returned to the Durham area to form, along with Wolff, a baseball management company that consulted with minor-league operators on how to successfully run their clubs.
Mount knew of Bock through Wolff. So, the movie’s producer hired the former minor-league umpire and general manager as a baseball consultant. Bock’s charge was to make certain actors and ballplayers looked the part, that baseball scenes looked as realistic as possible, and that there would be no left-handed catchers or shortstops. If a scene called for a baserunner to be thrown out at third base, Bock would make sure he had the proper players in position to make the play occur, and appear realistic.
Prior to filming, Bock set up what essentially was a spring training complex for tryouts. Most of the 84 “actors” he hired were professional baseball players who had time on their hands during the offseason, when the movie was filmed. He needed that many players because some scenes were filmed in other North Carolina locales such as Asheville, Greensboro and Rocky Mount. Essentially, he needed about four teams of players, including those who were the “extras” among the Durham Bulls.
One such player hired was Paul Devlin, whose eligibility as a player at the University of North Carolina had expired. He was set to debut the following spring for the New York Mets Class A affiliate in the Carolina League. In one of the movie’s classic scenes, Devlin was tipped off by the catcher — Crash Davis — that the next pitch from Nuke LaLoosh would be a fastball. After Devlin crushed that pitch for a home run, Davis visited his pitcher on the mound and told him that any pitch hit that far should have “a stewardess on it.”
One night — actually, it was around 2 in the morning — during filming, Shelton was looking for an actor he had hired to be the preacher for a wedding scene at home plate between a Durham Bulls player and an avid fan. Nowhere to be found, Shelton turned to Bock and said, “You can do it.”
Bock was wearing gloves and a couple of sweat suits to help him deal with the cold of the late night. He went to a trailer to try on a suit for the scene, but the suit was a size 38, several notches below what Bock wore at the time.
“Well, that rules me out,” Bock said.
“No, no, no,” an assistant in the trailer replied. “We’ll take care of it.”
Bock arrived for the scene in the suit, which had the back of the jacket and pants ripped out so it would fit. The adjustments could not be detected with straight-on shots of Bock from the film crew. Thus, Bock played the role of the preacher.
Back in California, during the cutting and re-editing of the film, Mount and Shelton were battling over compromises in changes to the film, not all of which met Shelton’s approval.
At about the same time, Mount was in conversations with Charles Glenn, then the executive vice president of advertising for Orion, about ways to promote the movie. Among other things, Glenn decided to produce a poster depicting a sultry Annie Savoy with her arm draped around Crash Davis as they sat atop the hood of a car outside a baseball stadium.
“It really made the movie,” Mount said. “The idea was that it was both about baseball and sex, which we couldn’t talk about very openly in newspapers at that time, but it really worked.”
The picture was taken at a ballpark in California at sunset. The movie is pitched on the poster as “Bull Durham: A Major League Love Story in a Minor League Town,” with the additional subtext: “Romance is a lot like baseball. It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.”
The movie’s premiere was held in June of 1988 at the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, a few blocks from Durham Athletic Park. Shelton and Mount were there to introduce the movie to city dignitaries, Bulls employees, friends and family. Before the showing, Mount took the stage with his mother, Bonnie, sitting in the front row.
“I want you to know,” Mount told the audience, “if there are any cuss words in here, my mother made me put them in.” The crowd howled. Bonnie Mount never forgave her son for the comments.
Unlike today, movies then did not have to open in massive numbers of theaters or produce outrageous earnings on the first weekend of showings. To be successful then, a movie could open modestly and hold for several months.
That is what happened with “Bull Durham.” It did about $5 million in ticket sales the first weekend in 1,238 theaters, and continued to produce a similar dollar figure every week through the entire summer of 1988. It represented how successful movies worked in those days, mostly by word of mouth, and eventually grossed $50 million.
Interestingly enough, the Durham Morning Herald panned the movie after the premier showing. The local newspaper was virtually alone in its criticism. Nationally, the movie picked up steam as review after review was glowing in its praise. Perhaps the best representative of the national reviews was written by David Ansen for Newsweek magazine. Ansen wrote that “Bull Durham” “works equally as a love story, a baseball fable and a comedy, while ignoring the clichés of each genre.”
As much steam as the movie gained throughout theater showings in the summer of 1988, it really was only the beginning of a lasting impact on baseball. No other baseball movie, before or since, has resonated so powerfully with fans and players quite like “Bull Durham.” Some would argue otherwise, but most agree that the movie remains the greatest ever produced about baseball, and among the best sports films of all-time.
The movie landed in Durham because of Mount’s association with the Bulls, and because Shelton believed the city and Durham Athletic Park best represented what minor-league baseball was all about at the time.
In the years following the movie, attendance spiked at the old ball park as fans from all over the country wanted to get a glimpse of the park and somehow again connect with what they saw in the movie. Even today, nearly three decades after the movie was released and after the Durham Bulls long since moved into a new stadium, baseball fans still park their cars and walk around the exterior of Durham Athletic Park. Or, they just park their car down the third-base line and reminisce about what minor-league baseball must have been like in the 1980s.
Excerpted from “NO BULL: The Real Story of the Rebirth of a Team and a City” by Ron Morris, on Sale June 6 in bookstores or available for preorder from Baseball America: https://store.baseballamerica.com/collections/books/products/no-bull-the-real-story-of-the-durham-bulls-and-the-rebirth-of-a-team-and-a-city