When I sat down to re-watch Bull Durham, I didn’t think there would be much to say about what is often considered to be one of the best (if not the best) sports movies of all time. What I remembered were the broad strokes of the plot and the things that people think about when they think about Bull Durham. I knew there were things that I missed in previous viewings, but I didn’t expect to find a veritable treasure trove of geeky minor league details throughout the film. Let us now breathe through our eyelids and pick these apart.
For context, let’s remember that the film was shot in the late eighties, a time when the real Durham Bulls were in the Carolina League, serving as a Single-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. Presumably lacking an MLB license, the movie does not explicitly mention any major league teams, but does use several minor league teams of that era. Though the league/level accuracy wavers here and there (more on that in a bit) the filmmakers at least made a good faith effort–even though that created some odd moments.
One of these odd moments happens in the first ballgame shown in the film, in which Nuke LaLoosh makes his pro debut. As the game begins, a PA announcer (who sounds an awful lot like Susan Sarandon) introduces the Bulls’ opponent as the Peninsula White Sox. This was an actual team identity that existed in the Carolina League for two seasons–1986 and 1987–right at the time Bull Durham was shot. I heard that announcement and readied myself to see the uniforms of this obscure minor league team. Then the batter strode to the plate wearing….uh….orange-detailed uniforms. I paused, squinted, and identified the Hagerstown Suns.
The Suns were still in the Carolina League in those days (before moving to the Eastern League in ’89) so they aren’t out of place in terms of league accuracy. My guess is that they recorded the White Sox line but forgot to record one for Hagerstown. Or maybe they shot a whole scene with Peninsula, but then had to re-shoot. Either way, we get a look at the Suns’ Orioles-inspired eighties unis, including their janky batting helmet with the team nickname printed in all caps across the front.
Shortly after this game, Crash Davis enters the picture, and we have the famous scenes (“I believe in the…”) at Annie Savoy’s house. That section ends with Savoy tying a mostly-naked Nuke to her bed and reading him I Sing the Body Electric by Walt Whitman. The camera pans over Annie’s religious shrine to baseball, and right away, I recognized a baseball card design–1985 TCMA. That blue-bordered style has popped up several times as I’ve chipped away at the DIA, and I own and treasure at least one card from that set. I thought it would be difficult to identify the card tucked into the shrine, but the “OF” in the lower left corner and the forward-looking eyes seem to point to someone named Chris Baird.
Immediately after this, we get a from-behind shot of Annie reading Whitman, and what do I see being used as the bookmark? Why, that’s the unmistakable 1987 ProCards design, the one with the city name loudly proclaimed across the top of the card. I did some more sleuthing, and even though I can’t be totally sure (that’s a tiny image!) the pose/angle of the bat and the visible 3 on the back of the player’s jersey lead me to believe that this is the card of some mustached farmhand named Alex Smith.
My friends, these details keep me ticking. I knew early on in the film that it was definitely worth re-watching Bull Durham from an MLG perspective.
Crash Davis’s first game with the Bulls is an extended scene in which Durham faces off against the Winston-Salem Spirits. This is a perfectly accurate Carolina League matchup, and we get plenty of great shots of Spirits. In those days, Winston-Salem wore a blue and green color combo, and their logos were based around an eagle. Though I was familiar with the jersey design, I was surprised to see that the cap logo was a letter S with the top portion formed by the eagle’s head. We also catch a glimpse of a Cubs logo sleeve patch. I wonder if this unlicensed use ruffled any feathers in Chicago.
Maybe I had my hopes up too much with the Winston-Salem accuracy, because I was scratching my head and frantically scanning Baseball Reference when the Bulls played their next game against the….Fayetteville Generals?! The Generals were a South Atlantic League team that later became the Cape Fear Crocs before moving to Lakewood, New Jersey. Now, why would a Carolina League team be playing against a South Atlantic League team? Since the cities of Durham and Fayetteville are only about 90 miles apart, I have to assume that it was regional convenience on the part of the filmmakers. It’s not nearly as ridiculous as, say, Major League: Back to the Minors, but it was a little disappointing after the attempts at accuracy in the early parts of the film.
Either way, it’s a good opportunity to get a look at the Generals, who were a new team in 1987, likely the year the scene was shot. They were a Tigers affiliate, so there are orange stripes on the uniforms. Probably the most striking detail is the cap, a simplistic design featuring four white stars.
Speaking of the Sally League–when the Bulls go on their first big road trip, they are shown playing against a team bedecked in gorgeous kelly green and gold, that I instantly recognized as the eighties-era Greensboro Hornets. Funny enough, right after the game against Greensboro, the Bulls are shown arriving at War Memorial Stadium and playing against an announced Greensboro team that is not shown. Ah, the grace of film editing.
Let’s check out those awesome Hornets unis. The real Greensboro also had green pullovers in those days, but the home whites are pretty snazzy. The look is very Oakland-esque, but the Hornets were never an A’s affiliate. Rather, I think it is safe to assume that the green is a tip of the cap to the colorful place name. That cursive G on the caps is similar to what the Grasshoppers wear today. The road trip also gives us our first look at Durham’s road grays.
After the road trip, the Bulls return to Durham. Their first game back is against the Salem Buccaneers, a quirky Virginian DimDer club that played in the Carolina League in the late eighties and early nineties. This is an extended scene that gives us many looks at Salem’s uniforms, including their awesome skull-ball and cross-bats logo, Pittsburgh-esque striping, and caps with a B. Interestingly, the PA announcer (is it Susan Sarandon?) calls them just the Bucs. Using the diminutive form of the nickname seems a little odd considering that the team began in just 1987. But then again, it says Bucs right on the jerseys.
After this scene, things get weird very quickly. The team hits the road again, and this time the trip is a montage set to the rockin’ Baby Boomer groove of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.” We see a glimpse of the Bucs in home whites, as well as some players dressed in 4th of July colonial attire. One of these players appears to be a member of the Hagerstown Suns.
So, OK, it was a road trip to the northeastern reaches of the Carolina League, right? Maybe they swung by to face the Prince William Yankees or Lynchburg Mets? Uh…instead we see a team in red-in-white, styled similarly to the Cincinnati Reds. My curiousity was piqued! I paused, rewinded a bit, paused again, and…
The Billings Mustangs?!? Are you kidding me? Our league/level authenticity house-of-cards was already a little tipsy with the Sally League add-ons, but now you’re going to give us a Rookie Level Pioneer League club based in freakin’ Montana?
Mock outrage aside, I’m insanely curious why the Mustangs appear here. Maybe they shared an owner with one of the North Carolina clubs? Maybe the Billings owner at the time had ties to Hollywood? After some web-searching, it seems that me and a Beckett blogger are perhaps the only two humans on planet earth to have noticed this aberration.
But once the house of cards has toppled, it has toppled. After the road trip, the Bulls return home to face their opponent–the Eugene Emeralds of Eugene, Oregon. As you can imagine, the team name is not introduced. But those powder blue Ems jerseys are unmistakable.
How on earth did Northwest and Pioneer League uniforms end up in a movie that was filmed in North Carolina? The world may never know. Let’s call it an Unsolved Mystery.
In Bull Durham‘s final act, Nuke gets called up to the Show while Crash gets released from his contract and signs on with the Asheville Tourists. There’s a nice bit of accuracy, where Annie narrates that Crash is joining the South Atlantic League–where the Tourists have played since the Sally was called the Western Carolinas League. People often forget about this late-movie de-Tour, but real-life Asheville club paid homage during the 30th anniversary of the movie in 2018.
There are many cool Asheville images in these scenes, including the outside of McCormick Field (still used by the Tourists!) and the locker room, which has the team logo painted on the wall.
I think of the Tourists as being one of the torchbearers of independent identities, linking the glory days of early twentieth century minor league ball with the current branding era, which really took shape around the time Bull Durham was released. Excluding a few years in the seventies as the Asheville Orioles, the Tourist nickname has been around for over 100 years. It was a wacky nickname when wacky nicknames were still wacky, and their visual aesthetic (unlike nearly all the teams in this movie) was free from parent club influence. The Tourists were an Astros affiliate at the time, but instead of tequila sunrise striping (even though that would’ve been cool) there is a simple, attractive red and blue combo that looks as good on Kevin Costner as it did on Craig Biggio. A patch on the sleeve is merely the same team logo that is painted on the wall.
If the Tourists seem like a random team to throw into the movie mix, it’s worth mentioning that in the eighties, Miles Wolff had a stint as Asheville’s owner. Another Wolff holding from that era? Why, the Durham Bulls, of course.
This would be a nice note to end this analysis on, but I must address a concerning matter–that of the team vying against the Tourists in the game where Crash breaks the minor league home run record. The pitcher winds up, and…
What in the world?!? There was no team called the Senators in the Sally League of the eighties. When I saw the C, my mind rushed to Charleston Senators, but they were a Triple-A team (and incidental FauxTOB!) that went belly-up in 1960. In fact, at that time (as now) the only team called the Senators in the affiliated minors is the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania club in the Eastern League.
My crackpot theory: the Charleston Wheelers were a new team in 1987, which was around the time when Bull Durham was shot. They hadn’t decided on the Wheelers identity yet, and were planning a resurrection of the Senators identity, even going so far as to make uniforms. And let’s say that the Asheville scenes were filmed in fall 1986, and the new Charleston Senators were tabbed to serve as a fictional opponent….alright, this sounds even more crackpot as I try to explain it. Let’s just call it an Unsolved Mystery. Maybe the filmmakers just made up a fictional team.
In addition to all of these teams that were visually showcased in the movie, there were a few more that were briefly mentioned. Annie narrates about the Bulls trip to Kinston. When Crash gets his pink slip from the Bulls, the young catching prospect replacing him is said to be coming from Bluefield. In that same conversation, the manager mentions to Crash that there might be a job for him to coach the next season in Visalia. This last option is mentioned in the final dialogue between Annie and Crash, with Crash implying that he will spend the off season with Annie in Durham, before plying his managerial trade in the California League. Then some Dr. John plays, and Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon do the baby boom boogie as the credits roll.
That about wraps up the MLG take on Bull Durham. Even though I still think the movie is good, not great, I appreciated it much more after taking the time to pick apart each little detail and add them to the global effort to catalog minor league baseball ephemera.
Read more Minors in the Movies reviews here.