Hit Bull Win Steak and other memorable moments
With the 30th anniversary of “Bull Durham” this summer, it’s now undeniable: Most of the people playing minor league baseball weren’t even born when Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins made the Carolina League a subject of national fascination.
For that reason — and because many baseball fans remain obsessed with the fictional Durham Bulls and their cast of characters — below you will find some odds and ends that went into the making of a classic.
■ The now iconic “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign in the outfield was a prop thought up by writer-director Ron Shelton. Fans and moviegoers loved it, prompting the team to keep the prop at Durham Athletic Park after the movie was finished.
Team spokesman Matt Sutor said the movie prop fell apart pretty quickly and was replaced. The current sign at Durham Bulls Athletic Park is actually the third iteration of “Hit Bull Win Steak.” As of 2014, unfortunately, players no longer win a steak.
■ “Bull Durham” provided a resurgence for Max Patkin, the tirelessly touring Clown Prince of Baseball. Patkin enjoyed an extended cameo in the movie, including a dance with Sarandon’s Annie Savoy.
Chuck Domino, former general manager of the Reading Phillies, recalled Patkin made 40 to 50 appearances over the years at the Reading, Pa., ballpark. He joked about his interactions with the entertainer.
“He kept saying it was his last show and then he’d come back for $100 more the next year,” Domino said. “I said, ‘If you swear this is your last show, we’ll give you $1,000.’ The next year, he said, ‘I’m thinking about coming out of retirement.’ I said, ‘No, you cannot do it. You promised me this would be the end.’”
Patkin died in 1999 at age 79, having made more than 4,000 appearances in his career.
■ Butch Davis understands the story of Crash Davis as well as anyone. Now 59, Davis is the hitting coach for the Norfolk Tides, the Class AAA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. Before moving into managing and coaching in the mid-1990s, he spent 14 years playing professional baseball, mostly in the minors.
In 1987, he returned to his native North Carolina for the offseason. That’s where future big-league manager Grady Little, hired as the movie’s baseball adviser, asked Davis to be an extra in the movie.
“It was a lot of fun,” Davis said while watching the Tides warm up at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte. “Going into it, I didn’t know what to expect. You learn that you do a lot of sitting around.”
Davis wound up with a memorable cameo: He strikes out just before Costner’s Crash Davis goes to the plate for an at-bat marred by thoughts of Annie Savoy.
In the movie, the PA announcer says, “Whoa, too bad, Butch. Too bad.”
That line has since followed Davis.
“Guys I played with, they always say, ‘Too bad, Butch,’” Davis said.
Davis received $2,000 for his strikeout, which, he said, required minimal acting. “I said, ‘That’s easy, I’ve been doing it all my life.’”
■ As for Little, he’s still in baseball as a senior adviser with the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the time he worked on the movie, Little was about to manage the Durham Bulls for the first time. In 2002 he became the manager for the Boston Red Sox, guiding them to the ALCS in 2003 only to gain infamy for leaving Pedro Martinez on the mound in the eighth inning of Game 7 as Boston blew a 5-2 lead to the Yankees. He also managed the Los Angeles Dodgers.
What stands out most for Little about “Bull Durham”? The catering trucks. “It wasn’t peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said. “It was prime rib, lobster.”
Costner is a credible athlete, as Little confirmed. Robbins, on the other hand, as pitcher Nuke LaLoosh, was a challenge. Or, as Little put it, “Trying to get that delivery he had to look like he was throwing hard, that was a tough feat right there.”
■ The Bulls’ home ballpark was repainted by the movie crew, replacing blue with green. The main reason? Green offered a sharper contrast with Sarandon’s red hair.
“True,” said co-producer Thom Mount, who owned part of the team. “And our ballpark needed paint!”
Miles Wolff, the Bulls’ lead investor, remembered producers promising to restore the stadium once shooting wrapped, but getting cold feet as the movie was finished.
“The studio had no faith in it,” he said. “They hesitated. They didn’t want to spend any more money. We had to fight them to get the ballpark put back the way it was.”
■ Politics and sports collided when “Bull Durham” celebrated its 15-year anniversary.
Robbins and Sarandon, who became a couple after filming “Bull Durham,” were outspoken critics of the war in Iraq in 2003. Their opposition prompted Dale Petroskey, then the head of the Baseball Hall of Fame, to cancel an event in Cooperstown that would have included an appearance by Robbins.
Petroskey, a former press aide to President Reagan, informed Robbins of his decision in a letter stating that Robbins’ criticism “ultimately could put our troops in even more danger.”
Robbins responded with a letter of his own, telling Petroskey, “I was looking forward to a weekend away from politics and war to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Bull Durham. I am sorry that you have chosen to use baseball and your position at the Hall of Fame to make a political statement.”
— Erik Spanberg