On BULL DURHAM And Max Patkin

Some thoughts on baseball, baseball clowns and losing yourself in a story (minimal beer content).

I watched Bull Durham again last night. I try to watch it at least once every summer, and specifically on a midweek evening because, to me, that seems to be the time that so much of the action in the film takes place.

My summer game when I was a kid was cricket, but thanks to the local newsagent I was able to pick up imported Action comics a few times a month and within those pages, amongst the ads for X-ray specs and Bazooka Joe, I saw names such as Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. They meant little to me at the time, far less than, say, Ted Dexter, Fred Trueman and Colin Cowdrey, but a spark was kindled.

Fast forward to about twenty years. It's 1985, I'm visiting the US for the first time and all I want to do is see some baseball - I don't care whether it's live or on TV. Detroit had won the World Series the previous year and I was fortunate enough to be taken to Tiger Stadium. It was everything I had hoped it would be and I loved it. Imagine my joy when, a few years later, one of the main British TV channels started showing highlights of MLB games and the World Series. A few years after that I discovered that I could listen to live baseball games on American Forces Network almost every night. You might think there's a problem there - the time difference. The games would usually start around 1am London time, but I used to spend three nights each week driving around town distributing magazines until the early morning so the timing was perfect. Of course, with the transmitter being situated in Germany and broadcasting on medium wave the reception was less than perfect and would fade out now and again, especially in built-up areas, so I usually missed about a quarter of the commentary.

I can remember the first time I saw Bull Durham, and it was one of those films that clicked with me straight off. Some of you might think the film's a bit cheesy (Crash Davis is just the wrong side of being too damn perfect in everything he does), but to me it's exotic, in the same way that Texas still is, even after living here for almost thirteen years, and in several senses of the word: "of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad; strikingly unusual or strange." Being an outsider I didn't have any preconceived notions about the film's subject matter so it gave me some. It filled in the blank slate that was my interpretation of what it might be like for a player in the minor leagues and for the people who go to watch them. I find parts of it very atmospheric (that 1980s style echoing saxophone is a big help there) and evocative... but do I really know if what it's evoking is real? The ball park? The team bus? The pool hall? I don't have the necessary cultural background and references to know for sure. I didn't realise until recently that Bull Durham is a brand of tobacco.

I'm smart enough to know that it's a work of fiction and peppered with artistic licence, but I also know that it was written and directed by Ron Shelton who had spent four seasons in the minor leagues himself, so I give it some critical credence in that respect, just as I do a film like Withnail and I, which Bruce Robinson based on his own experiences and people he knew. But even a film that's biographical or based on real events has to exist on its own and be its own world, and it has to draw us in so that we become part of it. I've watched too many films that haven't been able to do that.

I've always thought that the very highest quality usually comes without trying. It's a zen thing. Zero waste of effort. Watch a clip of Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar and you'll get an idea of what I mean; he makes it look as if the instrument is playing itself and Jimi is simply following the sound it's making with his fingers. Max Patkin, who shows up three or four times in Bull Durham, possessed that same genius in his own field (no pun intended) of endeavour - making people laugh. Max was one of those rare people - a bona fide naturally funny man. His rubber face and body to match meant he was tailor-made for the job. One journalist wrote of his physique: “Someone had started at the top, and finished in the middle. For one thing, they forgot to put the bones in. He looked as if they found him on a broomstick in a cornfield.” Bill Veeck, one-time owner of the Cleveland Indians and the man who hired Max as a coach, said that he looked like he'd been put together by someone who couldn't read the instructions very well.

Despite his goofy looks in later years when he carried the title Clown Prince of Baseball, in his youth he was a good-looking fella. He'd had a love of baseball since early childhood, played for his high school in Philadelphia and later for a local Minor League team. It was during the second World War when he was in the services and playing for a Navy team that he followed Joe DiMaggio around the bases mimicking his actions after Joe had hit a home run off one of Max's pitches. The crowd loved it, and so began a peripatetic and sometimes lonely life, constantly moving from one ballpark to another, travelling around the country and lodging in fleapit hotels ("I stayed in rooms so small you had to step outside to change your mind"). He played to as many as 80,000 fans at Cleveland, and, as few as four at a minor league stadium in 1969 on the night that Neil Armstrong stepped out of the LEM and said those famous words.

Although he managed to save something like $50,000 by 1951, he steadily lost it to drinking and gambling. He worked his way through two marriages, one of which was to a cigarette girl he met in a nightclub who was 17 years his junior and (in Max's words) "A tall blonde with big bazooms." He eventually lost her too, but not before she had beaned him with a hammer...

Two weeks I spent in the hospital. I got out just so I could attend this banquet in Norristown (Pa.) for Tommy Lasorda. So there I am with my head all bandaged. Joe Garagiola is the emcee. Don’t get me wrong, Joe has been beautiful to me over the years. But when he introduces me, he says, ‘There’s Max Patkin. His head is bandaged because his wife hit him with a hammer.’ Got a big laugh, too.

By all accounts he was a pretty good dancer and coached Susan Sarandon for their scene in Bull Durham.

Eventually Max became disillusioned as ever-growing sums of money turned his beloved baseball into a multi-billion dollar business and players into prima donnas. He watched as ball club after ball club closed, citing air-conditioning and television coverage as the main reasons. He often said that before air-conditioning became common, the only way to keep cool on hot summer evenings was to get outside, so people went to see a game of baseball. Max's run of appearances came to an end one evening in 1993 when he sprained an ankle at Fenway Park. He decided that was going to be his last season, hung up his big baggy uniform and settled down with his daughter in Pennsylvania. He died of a burst aneurysm on 30th October, 1999 at the age of 79.

It seems to me that Max Patkin and Crash Davis could almost be the same person. Both of them love the game, can't imagine life without it and will do whatever it takes to finish the season. The film doesn't hint too much at what Davis does after sitting on the porch with Annie in that last scene, and it's all the better for it. In doing so it follows that old showbiz maxim - always leave 'em wanting more.

And the beer? I noticed while watching the film last night that whenever beer was being featured in one way or another, whether it be a can someone's drinking on the team bus, a bottle in the manager's office or a neon sign on the wall of the pool hall, it was always Miller. Might be product placement, might be more of Ron Shelton's authenticity. I couldn't possibly comment.