Catching up with Ron Shelton about his new book, ‘The Church of Baseball’

The famed 'Bull Durham' writer/director is a first-time author at 76.
On the left is the cover of The Church of Baseball and on the right is author Ron Shelton tossing a baseball
Photo by Michael Lionstar.
"The Church of Baseball" is 76-year-old "Bull Durham" writer/director Ron Shelton's first book.

Two decades ago, I attended my first — and only — Hollywood premiere.

It was a warm early December night at Paramount Studios. The film being celebrated was titled “The Day Reagan Was Shot” and the stars were out. Richard Crenna, who played Reagan, was there, and Holland Taylor, who portrayed Nancy Reagan. Executive producer Oliver Stone was in attendance.

I was there because “The Day Reagan Was Shot” was written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, my good friend since seventh grade in Madison. It was Nowrasteh’s night. The great University of Wisconsin–Madison presidential historian Stanley Kutler was there, too — Nowrasteh hired him as a consultant on the film.

The highlight of the evening for me — along with being happy for Nowrasteh — was getting to meet and spend a few minutes with Ron Shelton, writer/director of numerous acclaimed films including “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup.”

I admire Shelton’s movies, maybe most of all one that few people have seen, “Cobb,” in which Tommy Lee Jones plays the talented, tormented baseball legend Ty Cobb. The film resonates with me in part because it explores the tumultuous relationship between Cobb and a sportswriter, Al Stump (played by Robert Wuhl), as they collaborate on Cobb’s autobiography. I had moments of PTSD watching “Cobb” because in the 1980s I’d had a similar harrowing experience collaborating with the NFL star Lyle Alzado, something I wrote about earlier this year around the 30th anniversary of Alzado’s death.

That night in Hollywood, Shelton chuckled when I told him about my “as told to” writer adventure with Alzado.

He mentioned how much he admired Nowrasteh’s work ethic as a screenwriter. “He doesn’t talk about doing it,” Shelton said. “He does it.”

I knew Shelton and Nowrasteh were friends because when I first went to Los Angeles in 1985 to work with Alzado, I spent a few nights at Nowrasteh’s house, and he showed me a screenplay a friend of his had written. The script was titled “A Player to Be Named Later” and written by Ron Shelton.

It involved a pitcher, catcher, woman and baseball, but it was only after vast revisions and a name change that the world embraced “Bull Durham,” a 1988 romantic comedy set in the world of minor league baseball and starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. As noted, it was written by Shelton and marked his directorial debut. And what a debut: In 2003 Sports Illustrated called “Bull Durham” the best sports movie of all time.

“I still have that ‘Player to be Named Later’ script,” Nowrasteh told me recently.

He’s still friends with Shelton, too, which is likely why the director agreed to share a phone call with me last week to talk about his new book, “The Church of Baseball: The Making of ‘Bull Durham’: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit.”

I asked if he’d enjoyed writing the behind-the-scenes nonfiction book after decades of writing film scripts.

“I did,” Shelton said. “I had no idea what I was getting into. But it was quite enjoyable. I was writing a couple of scripts at the same time. I’d write the scripts for three weeks out of a month, then take a week off and work on the book.”

It was the “Player to Be Named Later” script that got Shelton, who played minor league baseball, in the Hollywood door. A producer bought the script for $10,000 and gave Shelton a job reading screenplays, a good tutorial on what makes a movie work or not.

“The whole thing is conflict,” Shelton said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy, tragedy or thriller. Every movie is based on what [a character] wants and what’s the obstacle. Desire and obstacle. In every scene. Or else there’s no drama.”

It was front of mind for Shelton when he took his “Player” script — “not very good,” he notes in the new book — and began turning it into the “Bull Durham” screenplay that was nominated for an Oscar. There is abundant desire as Costner, Robbins and Sarandon’s characters — old catcher, young pitcher and timeless muse — circle each other amid laughter, longing, obstacles and the occasional ball game. The film’s backstory provides another important Hollywood lesson: It helps to get lucky. Even with Costner — not yet a certified star — attached, Shelton struck out pitching “Bull Durham” to the studios. Just as Shelton was about to admit defeat, Costner’s new film, “No Way Out,” opened in New York, the New York Times reviewer gave it a rave and Orion Pictures executives in New York decided to give “Bull Durham” a chance.

What if those executives hadn’t seen the review that morning?

“There’s no question,” Shelton told me, “that [‘Bull Durham’] wouldn’t have happened.”

“The Church of Baseball” — a phrase uttered by Sarandon’s character — has garnered excellent reviews for the first-time author. “I’m stunned and very pleased,” Shelton said of the reaction. He’s received good notices from “tony New York and Boston lit-types” as well as sports radio talk shows in Alabama and Tennessee.

“I don’t try to preach to any choir,” he said. “I try to tell stories that connect people.”

Currently Shelton is working on adapting Richard Ben Cramer’s famous Esquire magazine profile of baseball great Ted Williams for film. Cramer’s long article — in which he hangs out, or tries to, with the bombastic, profane and occasionally agreeable Williams — is viewed by many as the best piece of sports writing ever.

The writer/director of the best ever sports movie adapting the best ever sports story? Bring it on.

“I may be nuts to think it’s a movie in this day and age,” Shelton said. “But it’s two star parts. It’s the lion in winter — and the lion is still roaring.”

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