When I was seventeen I wrote what I considered my greatest work to date, a short story about an erratic high school pitcher coached and romanced by a groupie of the game. It felt highly original at the time and over the years I wrote and rewrote the story until I chucked it in the trash. I’d named the main character “Sheldon.” There was no redoing Bull Durham. In one way or another it’d sunk into my bones.
Ron Shelton’s The Church of Baseball is a retrospective on the writing and making of the 1988 baseball movie. Shelton’s position as writer-director of the movie places him in a unique position to recall its story, and the result is an entertaining, casual book with the tone of a dinner table conversation. While detailed and multifaceted, the book is very much Shelton’s perspective from beginning to end, and does not pretend to be a comprehensive history. There is no interviewing, retrospective or otherwise. It is a memoir with very specific framing, and under these parameters the book certainly delivers.
Shelton tracks the origins of the idea to the beginning of his minor league baseball career. It’s an unglamorous existence but a noteworthy one, and calls back to the prior first-person accounts of Jim Bouton and Pat Jordan. For the sports nerds among us, these chapters are a joy, and the details Shelton calls upon to add authenticity and flair to Bull Durham appeal to writing nerds. As Shelton gets to the origins of Bull Durham, pitching it initially as “Lysistrata in the minor leagues,” the book affirms a truth that we all know but often neglect: that sports are art and it insults us all to build a wall between the two. The details, the inspiration, the writing routine—in these chapters we’re gifted a craft book and textual analysis all at once, and the experience is unbelievably rich. We watch the script take shape, the studios pass and accept and pass again for a host of different reasons. We follow Ron into pre-production and casting with the assurance that things work out, but also a mild interest.
The second half of the book is largely about the making of the movie itself, Shelton’s early foray into directing his own work. Interest in these chapters will correlate directly to your interest in general filmmaking. I am not a movie-watcher in general—I can count the movies I enjoy and recommend on just two hands—and these details can run together and lack the creative pulse of the earlier writing sections. Also frustrating is Shelton’s distancing from his past directorial self, alluding to his poor behavior and outbursts with few moments of reflection. For instance, when he recalls a moment in which he explodes at his staff about a lack of extras, he does so with a cheeky “I’m told this is how I reacted,” when so many other details present themselves clear as day. These moments, however, are somewhat redeemed by genuine regret at a moment where he expresses ownership over the actors (“How dare you talk to my actors!”) and is physically restrained.
Ultimately, it is a joy witnessing Susan Sarandon fight for her role as Annie, Tim Robbins stumble into the casting room, and Kevin Costner beg to audition his baseball skills. The movie fans know and love is becoming reality, and even through the filmmaking jargon there are enough interesting points to keep the reader moving through.
The Church of Baseball may present itself as solely for a small intersection of readers: Bull Durham fans, sports fans, writers, and film nerds. In reality, the book is so multifaceted that it appeals to non-overlapping sections of the Venn Diagram. Shelton’s writing voice is clear and good-humored, and while nothing groundbreaking, the book embodies the vintage wistfulness and romance that the movie continues to represent.
The Church of Baseball
By Ron Shelton
Knopf Publishing Group
Published July 5, 2022
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms