Hey, Mr. Crabtree, the Church of Satan is on line one, do you want to take the call?
Historic preservation the focus on tonight's "Shooting the Bull"

BCR to Gearino: Why "Bull Durham" will always be a uniquely Durham story

Kudos to the Independent Weekly for an interesting and thoughtful series this week on the 20th anniversary of the movie "Bull Durham," including a first-person account of one man's greatest Bulls game ever, a remembrance with legendary Bull and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, and a look at locations and extras from the 1988 film.

Dan_gearino_2 Still, the most intriguing piece is one from ex-N&O writer G.D. Gearino, a "longtime Raleigh resident" who decides to take on the mythos of the movie in a conventional wisdom-tweaking column titled "Bullshitty."

While Gearino takes on "Bull Durham" over the accuracy (or lack thereof) of its depiction of the minor leagues and the quality of the film's acting, he reserves his parting shot for what he sees as the anonymity of Durham's canvas in the movie:

None of this would matter, though, if the film had succeeded in portraying Durham in all its interesting, flawed, diverse, chaotic glory. The fact that a movie this bad is hailed as great is only one stumper to be pondered here. The other is why so much civic pride has been piled on a film that shortchanges the real place it sought to portray.

Aside from the scenes at the old Durham Athletic Park and a few shots of the downtown skyline, nothing in the movie gives you any sense of Durham as a specific, unique place. For all that it imparts about that history-rich city, it might as well have been filmed on a studio backlot....

This is why I've been puzzled for two decades by Durham's embrace of a movie that treats it as just another Nowheresville. The city portrayed in Bull Durham is just as colorless and uninteresting as Durham residents frequently declare Raleigh to be. Yet they adored the film when it came out, and 20 years later have launched themselves into a new round of celebration.

Welcome to the white-bread world, y'all. It's amusing to see you embrace your inner blandness.

Ah, Mr. Gearino. Where to begin?

There's no denying that the film's choice of Durham is, on the face of it, accidental -- save for producer Thom Mount's love of his hometown. There is no scent of tobacco described over the town, as Gearino decries; there is no Nuke-Crash scene set on the campus of Duke; there's no sense of Annie going down to meet an old friend down at RTP.

Still, Durham is the perfect spiritual location for the film, for the Bull City shares with every Class A minor leaguer the same pedigree: that of the relentless underdog.

The players portrayed in the movie are not polished stars waiting for their turn on the cover of Sports Illustrated; they're instead to some extent a band of misfits, from the religiously-obsessed virgin to the superstitious fielder to the goofy coach.

They endure the indignities of the underdog, from long hot bus rides to ancient and decrepit facilities. Plus, most obviously: they're simply not very good through most of the movie.

Yet when Crash Davis tells his story of making it to The Show, the entire team goes silent, wanting to hear his retelling of the most special twenty-one days of his life, rapt at the dream they've aspired to for so long.

And in the wake of such inspiration, and more than a little bit of loosening-up and fun, the team starts winning, a scrappy crew who won't accept defeat.

It's a role that Durham is used to: the underdog city that never seems to catch the respect it deserves; a city used to being the butt of jokes; and yet, a place that doesn't take itself too seriously, that knows how to have fun, that somehow finds a way to win.

The story of the fictional cinematic Bulls is one that resonates with every Durhamite proud to live in this city.

Durham's status as an underdog is nothing new. It was an upstart railroad crossing submerged into Orange County at its founding. By the mid-twentieth century, it was tagged as an old industrial town decades before industry would finally leave. In the 80s, its downtown was nearly abandoned for good.

Each time, our friends to the east -- and elsewhere in the state -- have left Durham behind as a has-been. And each time, Durham's remade itself, against all odds, into something more. A city that manages, against all odds and at times against all home, to be great.

Just like our Bulls of film history.

If that was the only linkage between Durham the city and Durham the setpiece for "Bull Durham," I suspect that it would be a reason enough for us to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this film.

Still, I think Gearino sells the Durham-"Bull Durham" connection short for a second reason. Even though the film never references Durham specifically, the city is a centerpiece of the film in so many ways.

Not least of which is its representation of a very atypical Southern city. When you see Annie Savoy walking from her Mangum St. Victorian home down to the old DAP, amidst a rainy dusk, try to imagine that scene taking place in, say, Raleigh.

You can't. Because there's no way in heck anybody would walk to the ballpark there. Instead, you'd see a sea of station wagons driving into Devereaux Meadows from North Raleigh, honking their horns as they searched for a space in a parking lot somewhere.

Yet the portrayal of scenes like this Annie moment feels, to those of us who live around the DAP, like a genuine reflection of life in this neighborhood. Replace the DAP with the neighboring farmer's market and it's an image you might see any Saturday, for instance.

Similarly, when Kevin Costner's Crash Davis walks down Morgan St. along the edge of the old Liggett tobacco warehouses, a decade before they became West Village, the hulking structures are as a character in the film, their bulk and grandeur and inaccessibility a contrast against the emotionally-hurting catcher as he walks, lonely, through the city.

For that matter, the gossipy, chatty nature of the residents in the movie is hardly a small-town stereotype applied to a faceless canvas. Spend a few months in Durham; read the neighborhood listservs, hang out at Bull McCabe's for a night, swing by a City Council meeting. And trust me: you'll get your ear bent.

Phil Szostak described this characteristic of Durham as the rationale behind his design of the Durham Performing Arts Center, providing a glass facade so as to see Durhamites debating the performance they're watching during intermissions. Durhamites love to talk, debate, and argue, Szostak said. And it's as accurate in the new Broadway facility as it was in the aging DAP.

I don't blame Gearino for his assumptions on "Bull Durham." For he's admitted he's a Raleighite. And Raleighites, for all the wonderful qualities of their city, tend to see the world just slightly differently than we Durhamites do.

Raleigh is the small city that desperately wants to be big. Durham, on the other hand, is in many ways the big city -- a world-class employment center, one of the nation's best universities, medical excellence -- that still aspires to be a small city at heart.

And it's that disconnect in worldview that explains so much of the never-ending war of words we see taking place up and down I-40.

In that vein, the Durham canvas present in "Bull Durham" is every bit the place our residents love: gritty, authentic, close-knit, spunky, underappreciated -- by all but the true Durhamite, that is.

Is "Bull Durham" more bull than Bull City? Hardly. It's a hard concept for residents of the go-go City of Oaks to wrap their heads around, perhaps -- but it's something so many Durhamites just understand, in our heads and hearts.



Very well put. I wish they'd run that next to the "Bull Shitty" piece.

David Rollins

It's been many years since I've seen the film, but when I think of the bar the team went to for drinks I am reminded of a bar that used to be on Broad St. (next to where the "Paradise" African restaurant is now). When Crash and Nuke step out into the back alley to fight, you can practically see yourself there among the dumpsters from the Green Room.

A scene on the Duke campus? Puh-leez. Town and Gown are as divided here as I've seen in many years of living in college towns (Cambridge, Harlem, Baton Rouge). The closest this movie gets is in featuring Annie's home on Mangum, which is a dead ringer for any of a dozen homes in Trinity Park (I'm thinking particularly of Dean Levi's house across from Watts Elem., with the wide porch and eclectic chotchkes in the front room).

Great post.

James Martin

Hear, hear!

Louise Geez

the Indy is so depressing. Why are they pissed off all the time? It gets rather old rather quickly, IMHO.


FWIW, bar scene in the movie was filmed at Mitch's Tavern across from NC State & not behind the Green Room.


"Raleigh is the small city that desperately wants to be big. Durham, on the other hand, is in many ways the big city -- a world-class employment center, one of the nation's best universities, medical excellence -- that still aspires to be a small city at heart."

This is the best description of the differences of Durham-Raleigh that I've ever read.



I sort of agree with the Indy article, and I've lived in Durham since before the movie was released. It makes me wonder just how long Kevin has been living in Durham. Obviously long enough to speak on behalf of all Durhamites.

I think it's kind of neat when you can identify the locations used in movies from personal experiences, but in the end, it's just Hollywood fiction, and not really anything worth celebrating.

I guess Chapel Hill could be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Patch Adams this year.


And why is there no 25th anniversary celebration of Brainstorm this year? WE WANT WALKEN! EMAIL WALKEN!

Michael Bacon

For a movie that was, ultimately, about minor league baseball, not about the city itself, I'd say there's an enormous amount of Durham character there.

No, the city the movie portrays doesn't much resemble Durham today, but it is a pretty good snapshot of the Durham I lived in on my second time through this place (this is currently my third), when I got here to go to NCSSM in 1992.

There are two Durhams that you get a shot of in the movie, neither for very long, it's true. One is, naturally, the old tobacco town, that includes Annie's house, the DAP, and the shots Kevin mentioned of walking down Morgan St. The other, though, you can see in the shots of Tim Robbins dancing awkwardly at the restaurant, and oddly enough, in a sunrise shot of what you're told in the movie is Greensboro, but is actually from the parking lot of the Heart of Durham hotel. That's of 1980's vintage modernism, overlaid on top of the old town, in the form of four lane throughways, motor lodges, and chintzy bar decor. I have to say, that pretty well captures Durham as I remember it in 1992, down to my experience going to math class in a 90-year old hospital with a terra cotta roof, while living in a newly built concrete bunker of a dormitory.

Gearno doesn't recognize that because he doesn't know a damned thing about our city. The movie is about baseball, and according to Sports Illustrated's interviews with players recently, it's a pretty damn good account of life in the minors. But what you see in the backdrop is, for the most part, a pretty good look at at least one side of the town.

Dan S.

I'll admit, only in the last few years has Bull Durham transitioned from the list of movies that I didn't like to my list of favorites. When the film debuted, I was 9, so, it took a while before I saw the movie (I did, however, go to summer camp with "Scotty" -- the message runner).

When I did finally see the film (at 13 or 14), I was appalled and embarrassed by the portrayal of Durham as a sleepy little southern town with a hapless Single-A team and a heavy southern twang (despite being born in and living in/near Durham for 20 of my 29 years, I still have yet to acquire an accent). I wanted desperately for Durham to be more 'metropolitan', more 'sophisticated', more 'upscale' and more 'exciting' -- and I felt the film portrayed our 'nifty' little city as a backwater.

When I went off to college, in DC, I expected people to assume that I was some sort of rube or yokel, with their only exposure being the film and occasional B-roll shots from basketball games. Instead, people were curious about Durham -- marveled by the fact that a city of nearly 160,000 (at the time) looked so cozy on film; that you could actually walk from my old house (on Englewood, in TP) to the DAP for an evening game, and that the city did actually have as many trees as it appeared, on film and at 65mph when passing through on I-85.

More and more, I realized that, while the film used a 'sleepy/cozy' Durham as a nostalgic backdrop for a simpler time in Ron Dennis' life, that glittering bits of the 'real' Durham shone through. More than that, I now appreciate the film as a film -- although I still protest to friends that the Bulls of the late 80's were regularly Carolina-league champs. And, I believe that the film, and the accompanying merchandising saved the Bulls from moving to Raleigh or RTP.

Dan S.

I should also mention that part of my newfound appreciation is hearing my father recall life playing for a Texas farm-league team in the mid 1970s. He only spent a year on the roster (before moving to the front office for a year -- obviously, he never made it to the show), but he says that Ron Dennis did a fantastic job of capturing the inglorious, unglamorous life of a small-town minor league player.


The old Green Room was used in the last pool-playing scene.


The movie came out when I was living near DC between my two periods of living here, but I always thought it was a wonderful view of Durham. I just wished they had used the real ballpark announcer in the movie!

Back in the late 90s there was an article in the N&O about a TV sitcom that was proposed to be filmed in Durham. The article was filled with quotes about what makes Durham different...here are a few I saved. The first one is from Thom Mount, producer of Bull Durham:

Mount also likes the look of the city for a sitcom. "One of the fun things for us in doing 'Bull Durham' was that people would ask if it was a period piece," says Mount, chatting from Los Angeles. "It wasn't and it wasn't meant to be, but Durham has this funky old industrial look. Let me ask you something from the perspective of L.A.: How many places can you go that are covered with hubcaps? You couldn't find that here, but if we drove through Durham, we could find maybe 10 places. That's emblematic of a genuine American thing."

"It's gritty," says Meredith Emmett, executive director of North Carolina Public Allies, a nonprofit that works with teens. "But not in that big city kind of way; more in a real people working kind of way."


I agree that Durham could have played a more central role, but the movie is not about Durham. It is about minor league baseball told through the team - The DURHAM Bulls. The Durham Bulls are a true Durham institution and something to be proud of. The Bulls just as much set the tone and character of Durham, especially to visitors, as tobacco legacy does. We love them and protect them, just ask Mr. Goodbar about the time he tried to move them out to RTP in wake county. So Durham citizens have every right to be proud because while the movie isn't about the city, it is about one of our most beloved cultural treasures.

Locomotive Breath

What really was annoying was that some of the baseball scenes were filmed in February (!?) and when "Nuke" is on the mound his breath is all foggy when he exhales. I didn't do it but friends who went out to the DAP as extras say they had to wear summer clothes to make it look right. So they had on heavy coats and then stuffed them under the seat when filming started.

Reyn Bowman

Maybe this quote from the Film's producer will help Mr Gearino grasp the connection. Thom Mount the producer and a Durham native is speaking about Ron Shelton, the writer for Bull Durham

“Ron captured, most beautifully I thought, the kind of spirit of Durham which in those days was very much the kind of black sheep of North Carolina cities, a city where the tobacco industry and the cotton industry were fading, a city which had had a very tough civil rights struggle, and a kind of disastrously miscalculated urban renewal program and a number of things that didn’t serve the city very well.
And yet despite all that, in that Durham at that day, you could sit on a picnic bench at Kings Sandwich Shop, with men and women of color, men and women of different classes and occupations, and you could have a barbeque sandwich and a hot dog and talk about life and in that moment on that picnic bench there was something that annealed the better qualities of the human spirit and it existed in Durham and Ron was able to find it in the movie. I was incredibly proud of that.”

Nancy Tuttle May

All the locker room scenes were filmed in my old studio in the tobacco warehouse on Fernway st. which is now owned by Measurement Inc.
It is always a treat to see my old space,with high ceilings and hardwood floors. They painted "The Greatest Show on Dirt" on the brick wall in the scene showing 'Crash' getting fired.
The windows in the locker room are on the north side of the space facing Fernway, my only natural light for painting.
Nancy Tuttle May 11-7-10

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