Why Crash Davis is the best name ever, and other tales from the making of 'Bull Durham'

Director/Screenwriter Ron Shelton looks back at the making of 'Bull Durham'

Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed 'Bull Durham' in 1988 reflects on his time making the movie, the Crash Davis name, and how the antics of his minor league baseball career played into the storyline of the sports classic.
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Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed 'Bull Durham' in 1988 reflects on his time making the movie, the Crash Davis name, and how the antics of his minor league baseball career played into the storyline of the sports classic.

When Ron Shelton, writer and director of "Bull Durham," threw out the first pitch at the Durham Bulls' game last week against the Gwinnett Stripers, it was a strike, hard and fast down the middle.

Shelton is an old ball player. He's swung a bat for the Bluefield Orioles (now the Blue Jays) of the Appalachian League, the Stockton Ports of the California League, the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs of the Texas League, and the Rochester Red Wings of the International League.

Over his years in the Minors, and over the course of making "Bull Durham," he has accumulated a wealth of stories.

Shelton returned to Durham June 15 to celebrate the the iconic baseball movie — 30 years to the day the film was released. The legendary sports movie was filmed around Durham and Raleigh, including some spots still standing.

Ron Shelton wrote and directed 'Bull Durham,' which was filmed in Durham, North Carolina, 30 years ago. BORDERTOWN PICTURES

The film stars Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, elevating the Bulls to their status as perhaps the most famous minor league baseball team.

Before the first pitch, Shelton shared some of his favorite stories at a press conference. Here are some of them.

On the movie's critical reception

"There's about 500 reviews you get nationally, local papers, television stations, major magazines. The only bad review the movie got was from the Durham paper. You never forget a bad review."

On what makes a good baseball movie

"I hate movies about baseball and writings about baseball that are so lyrical and poetic that they're not really what it's like to play. What it's like to play is: You're trying to get a hit; you're trying to make the play; you don't want to make any errors; you're trying to get two hits if you've got one; you don't want to go 0-for-5; you're in AA, there's a guy in A ball hitting .350 and you're hitting .250, you gotta figure out how he's not gonna take your job; there's a guy in AAA who may get traded and open up a spot for you.

"That's what the life of a ball player is like. ... So I think most sports movies are from a fan's point of view, and I try to make movies from a player's point of view."

Bull Durham Costner Robbins
Tim Robbins (pitcher 'Nuke' LaLoosh), left, and Kevin Costner (catcher Crash Davis) star in the movie 'Bull Durham.'

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On meeting the real-life Crash Davis

"I got Crash Davis' name out of a Carolina record book. I like looking at stuff like that. And I saw '1946 - 'Crash' Davis - hit 56 doubles for the Durham Bulls,' so that was my name of my character. It was gonna be Crash Davis. Best name ever.

"I assumed he was long gone, and he certainly wouldn't be in Durham, because nobody lives where you played minor league ball.

"The night before my first day as a director, we were in the Sheraton, and we had set up little offices, and a young lady came in, she was a production assistant, and she said, 'Mr. Shelton, there's a Crash Davis on the phone.' And I think it's Kevin Costner, wanting to have a beer or something, and go over the work. So I said, 'Tell Kevin I'll call him back.'

""No, no, no, it's not Kevin, he says he's really Crash Davis.' And I said, 'What do you mean he's really Crash Davis, Crash Davis wouldn't be still in Durham, having played ball here in 1946. Ask him how many doubles he hit in 1946.' And she comes back and says, '56,' and I go, 'Holy cow, it's really Crash Davis!' So I say, 'Tell him to come to the set tomorrow.'"

"We're shooting in Annie's backyard, the very first scene, and halfway through the morning, I'm shooting, and I look over and there's this elegant gentleman, everybody there later found out who he was, but he has a blazer with trim, and I think 'Oh my God,' and I go over there, and it's Lawrence 'Crash' Davis, the elegant gentleman.

"It turned out, he had graduated from Duke in the late '30s. Nobody from the Major Leagues in the '30s went to college, and for sure nobody went to Duke. He had gone from Duke, pretty quickly to the Major Leagues, and played four years with the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics, with Connie Mack. (In 1942, during World War II, Davis was drafted into the Navy) and then (in 1946) he'd got out, because the war was over.

"By that time, he was 30, because he was a college grad, and did two years in the minors, and he was starting a family, so he decided to play a couple more years with the Durham Bulls, and that's where he hit 56 (doubles). Then for the last 30 years, before he'd called me, he'd been the head of human resources at Burlington Mill. So he'd gone on to this fabulous career.

"So anyway, we became friends, and I put him in another movie I made, about Ty Cobb, he played 'Wahoo' Sam (Crawford, a team mate and rival of Cobb), and then he went on the lecture circuit with a second career as the real Crash Davis."

Davis died in 2001, at age 82. His grandson wore the Wool E. Bull mascot costume at Friday's game.

(Editor's note: In 1946, Crash Davis played for the Lawrence Millionaires of the New England League. He played for the Bulls in 1948, hitting a league leading 50 doubles, one shy of the record 51 hit by Woody Fair for the Bulls in 1946.)

On flooding baseball fields

"We used to flood the field to get the day off. I played in the Texas League, and one year there were no scheduled days off. In the middle of the year, nobody wanted to make the All Star team because you had to fly to Albuquerque. This is true, because if you weren't on the All Star team you got three days off.

"So somebody had the bright idea, while we're in Little Rock, (Ark.,) and it was raining, it's about 3 in the morning and we're playing cards, and we're saying, 'You know, by game time, the rain's gonna be gone, and they probably put a tarp on the field.' So we got the bright idea to get a cab and go out there and pull the tarp off.

"Of course, there's a reason it takes 60 guys to move a tarp: they weigh about a hundred tons! So we couldn't move anything. We had told the cabbie to wait right there, but the ballpark in Little Rock was in a horrible neighborhood. So we climbed back over the fence, and the cabbie is gone, and it's pouring rain and we have to walk about five miles back to the hotel. And the next day we played.

"Now we get to Amarillo, (Texas,) and we're much smarter now. So we go out to the park, and we turn on all the sprinklers, and we just flood the hell out of the place. And we come back, again showing you what a college degree is worth, and now we have possibly the worst thing you could wish on a person: an off night in Amarillo. We could have picked San Antonio, or Memphis, where there's things to do at night. But no, we had an off night in Amarillo, and we're all wishing we're out there playing baseball."

"We tried it one more time, at the end of the season, because we were in fifth place and the Amarillo Giants were in fifth, we were tied for fifth and weren't gonna make the playoffs. (The Giants) say, 'Hey, we hear you guys are the guys who flooded the field last time. Why don't we meet you here tonight?' Because who wants to play that last double-header at the end of the season when it won't matter? So both teams went out there and flooded the field."

"Now, management was really angry, because they had a big promotion. So we play in mud (a foot deep,) for two games. They brought in sawdust, and then they lit the sawdust on fire, and then they brought in a helicopter from the Air Force base to dry it out, and it looked like a scene from 'Apocalypse Now.' We played in possibly the worst conditions ever."

Alex Lewontin: @alexclewontin
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