Legendary sports movie director, Ron Shelton, helps us kick off Season Five of the Legends Of Sport podcast. Ron discusses his baseball career and what drew him to filmmaking. He and Andy go through his greatest cinematic hits, talk about what makes a great movie and what he’s working on next.
Ron played five seasons of minor-league baseball in the Baltimore Orioles farm system and reached the Rochester Red Wings in the Triple-A International League in 1977.
Ron says he first fell in love with films while playing in the minor leagues. “I really fell in love with movies when I was playing baseball professionally, because you’re on the road all the time, you’re never home. And your home isn’t really your home, even at some apartment in some far off place. So either you stay in your hotel or your apartment ‘til four o’clock, or you get out and the only thing to get out is to go to a movie…it became an escape, and I went to movies every day just to get out of the hotel, and then go to the ballpark at four. I went and started to fall in love with movies and it was a good way to learn about movies,” Ron said.
In 1988, Ron made his directorial debut with “Bull Durham,” which follows an aging minor league ball player as he mentors a young pitcher.
“I like working with people. Directing is very athletic. There’s a game plan. There’s X’s and O’s, you rehearse it’s called spring training or practice. And then the day you’re shooting in a certain way your coaching is done…I think the sports metaphors work all across the board. I’m just trying to make movies from the players point of view more than the fans. I think the player sees a different game than the fan.”
Despite his personal love of sports, Ron says he didn’t plan to make a name for himself in sports movies.
“I never thought I’d make sports movies because I thought I’d make more political movies…When I wrote Bull Durham I happened to have a sympathetic producer who understood. He actually owned a piece of a minor league team and he knew what I was trying to get at. I just said I’m going to write a movie that I would like to go see and if it gets made it gets made and if I get one shot to direct fine least I’ll have at least I’ll say well that’s the kind of movie I would like to make and I was we were all surprised thrilled delighted when it got such a great reception,” said Ron.
Through his films, Ron explores character development, race relations, and other current event issues through the lens of athletes. He is also able to bring an athlete’s perspective to his writing and directing.
“Sports bring us together and they do create a common language. That’s why I like it as a background for movies because you don’t have to explain the rules of basketball or baseball or football or boxing, people know. That’s why I’ve said many times that they’re like westerns. In westerns you kind of knew what the archetypes were and the tropes and the great movies turned them upside down.”
In 1992, Ron tapped into the cultural zeitgeist with “White Men Can’t Jump” in 1992. Set in South Central L.A, the film follows a black and a white basketball hustle who team up to win money in a basketball tournament.
“I think it’s very important to make that movie again and in whatever the 2021 version of it is with what’s happened culturally and racially and socially and to reflect in the moment,” Ron said.
The movie brought together black and white players during a racially tense period in Los Angeles and gave them a home on the basketball court.
“There was a whole democracy on the playground. If you can play you will play, you know…the old expression “does he got game” and character content of your character is the content of your game on the playground. And that’s still true, I believe,” Ron said. “It’s actually given power to people of color to speak out politically where up until recently, athletes were forbidden from speaking out. Now NBA players have done breakthrough work socially and politically by expressing themselves which heretofore would have been forbidden.”
As the 2020 NBA season showed, athletes are speaking out and using their platform to address racial justice, mental health, and other topics unrelated to sports.
“There used to be controversy around the question, is an athlete a role model or not? And you decide with Charles Barkley saying, No, he’s not a role model. You just have to play the game well. Now I think the world’s changed. I think the athlete is a role model, because he’s given power and leverage is given a platform,” Ron said.
“I admire these guys, I really do admire Kaepernick who has been kicked under the bus kind of. What Kaepernick was doing wasn’t unusual even in the 60s. I mean, which is the shock about it, because I thought we’d come farther…I never put my hand over my heart during the national anthem as a protest against the Vietnam War. And nobody cared because I was in the minor leagues.”
In addition to his extensive filmography, Ron is writing a forthcoming book called “The Church of Baseball.” Set to be released in 2022, this book tells the story of the making of “Bull Durham.”