Bull Durham (1988) begins with grainy black and white stills of Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Babe Ruth, a ball club of women in three quarter sleeves and skirts, a woman vocalizing wordlessly to give a soulful soundtrack to the cameras slow movements across the images of the national pastime and national past time. With the exception of Mays, the images all contain white players, no hint of the Negro Leagues legends in the montage, only this black voice giving these forgotten players an invisible, spectral presence.
The other ghost in the story is fate. Fate limits what Crash Davis can achieve, a random fate that gave him the desire, intelligence, and not quite enough talent to excel in the majors, and blessed LaLoosh with a body that would carry him, in spite of his far less developed mind, to the majors after less than a single season in Durham. As Crash puts it, “the gods reached down and made your right arm a thunderbolt.” LaLoosh’s talent is not something he earned, not something he deserves, but is the result of a seemingly random universe that not only produces babies that can see and others born without eyes, but gradations of ability and potential so fine it sets up one man to be inducted into the hall of fame, and condemns the other to hover for a decade at the edge of his dream, like an exalted form of torture, his hands never able to perform the feats he imagined for them as a child.
Every movie is a universe, and Bull Durham still replays on TV now over 25 years later, because it is a universe much like our own, one suffused with beauty and sadness, one where humans, paradoxically, express infinite potentials from within their physical limits. Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh embodies this limitless potential, as his career only just begins as the movie ends, the same moment that Crash hits his last dinger and retires as the minor league home run king. At the same time, Crash’s finish forecasts that of LaLoosh, for even demigod pitchers will one day meet their limits in a blown-out shoulder, or the savage attacks of old age, or the mysterious loss of touch that leads to bad pitching from a good arm, and leads one to believe the gods that once bestowed favor have revoked their blessing, and left the golden boy helpless on the mound against the newest round of Olympians at the plate.
“This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball,” Trey Wilson’s manager Joe Riggins says to the Bulls after one of their many losses. It is the stark contrast between this self-evident simplicity and the subtle artistry of players like Mays (and the others in the opening montage) that make professional baseball such a compelling thing to watch, not in spite of its downtime–it is the downtime, which suddenly transforms into action requiring lightning reflexes, without warning, that makes spectating baseball not just a national pastime, but a national drug. The greatest players practice so much, with such spiritual discipline, that their well-muscled efforts and pre-dawn trainings accumulate into displays of seemingly effortless grace.
Athleticism in baseball, and elsewhere, inspires because it reminds us who work for a living, and rarely play at anything anymore, that the universe is still a place of wild possibilities, that humans are being born every day who will, unlike many of us, fulfill a great measure of their potential. Others will die too soon, like Trey Wilson, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at age 40, only months after Bull Durham hit theaters. Why? We don’t know. We create stories to account for it, but none of them are any better than the ancient ones where our suffering resulted from the bestial, outrageous dramas of the gods. Perhaps the best response we can have to the absurdity of fate is to play, to take our chances, to throw ourselves into the dirt, to submit ourselves to the complex art of a simple game.
When Nuke gets called up to the majors, he seeks out Crash and finds him in a pool hall in the black section of Durham. We can assume it’s in the black section because it has a black owner, a former minor league great who never received the respect he deserved, like Crash, but unlike Crash. A talented black man is the emblematic glitch in the American Dream and in the dream of America as the land of opportunity. The black man’s skin is, like Crash’s abundant but ultimately limited physical gifts, a twist of fate–some of us are born with black skins, and others are not. The curtailed opportunities, disdain, and indifference experienced by blacks is no accident of the universe, of course, but in the black pool hall both Crash and his black friend are relegated to a dim future–there is little light, and no natural light in the place. Like a casino, you cannot quite tell what time it is, suggesting that both Crash and the owner are somehow stuck there in a warped zone, together.
This setting and scene clinches the entire subtext of soul that Crash’s character threads through the film. The soundtracking of Crash brings him close the soul of baseball, which reflects the racially divided soul of the nation that expressed itself in the sport for most of baseball’s existence. Crash corrects Nuke’s mis-singing of “Try a Little Tenderness,” a song made famous by Otis Redding, who died at 27 in a plane crash after an amazing start to his career, another blessed and cursed victim of fate. Crash “hates when people get the words wrong.” (The Dr. John version of the song appears in Nuke’s dream sequence when he’s naked on the mound). Crash is a victim of a random fate yes, but he is really the tip of the iceberg. In the soul of baseball, and of the nation, there lurks an entire race of people buried inside their own skin, its color forming the horizon of their lives.
Crash exemplifies what fate can do to anyone, and he feels camaraderie with the aging, black, could-have-been legend, because his blackness exemplifies what happens when a society attempts to control the distribution of random mishaps that curse men to fail, then attributes that failure to the shortcomings of the victims, as if it was fate alone that engineered the deferral of dreams, as Langston wrote so famously. Crash, as great a player as he is, still speaks to us because he, like nearly all of us, must watch the greatest players from the stands.