In five years as an infielder in the Orioles’ farm system from 1967 to 1971, Ron Shelton never made it to the majors, only making it as far as the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. But his time there was a turning point because that experience laid down the foundation for one of Hollywood’s greatest sports movies.
“Bull Durham” turned 30 this past week, and the comedy/romance/sports film still has retained its youthful appeal. Written and directed by Shelton, the movie followed the lives of players and fans of the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team in Durham, N.C.
Kevin Costner starred as “Crash” Davis, a long-in-the-tooth catcher recruited to mentor flame-throwing but mercurial rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, who was played by Tim Robbins, before getting called up to the major leagues. Susan Sarandon played the romantic interest, Annie Savoy, who is attracted to both Davis and LaLoosh.
Shelton, who also wrote and directed “White Men Can’t Jump” in 1992 and “Tin Cup” in 1996 with John Norville, based “Bull Durham” on his own experiences as a second baseman in the Orioles’ system. He had stints with the Bluefield Orioles, Stockton Ports, Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs and the Red Wings.
In a 2008 interview with The Baltimore Sun to celebrate the film’s 20th birthday, Shelton described a vivid memory of his time in Rochester.
“In my last three at-bats in the regular season, I got base hits — one to left, one to center and one to right,” he said. “And that’s what you want to do: Hit to all fields. But in my last bat in the playoffs, a guy jammed me with an inside fast ball, and I want that back! We remember our failures as athletes and filmmakers. They stick with you because of the pain.”
In a column published by The Sun and several other publications the following year, Shelton wrote he based the characters of LaLoosh and Davis and their relationship on Steve Dalkowski and Joe Altobelli, respectively. Dalkowski was an obscure pitcher who once forced Hall of Famer Ted Williams to walk away from an at-bat after one pitch, while Altobelli was the veteran catcher assigned with counseling him. Altobelli later managed the Orioles for three seasons, leading them to the 1983 World Series title.
“This relationship — the veteran who loved a game more than the game loved him, and the God-gifted rookie who was otherwise a lost soul — was the inspiration for Bull Durham, though nothing specific in Altobelli or Dalkowski’s character is applicable,” Shelton wrote.
The film grossed over $50 million in North America, which pales in comparison to the opening weekend of a Star Wars or Avengers sequel. But in 2003, Sports Illustrated designated “Bull Durham” as the “Greatest Sports Movie.” Five years later, the American Film Institute announced its best 10 films in 10 American film genres, and “Bull Durham” was No. 5 in sports.
Shelton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, but lost to “Rain Man” written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass.