On Location in Bull City: A ‘Bull Durham’ Walking Tour
There aren’t many US cities that end up as characters in a hit movie, but Durham, NC, was ready for its close-up when filming began on Bull Durham in the fall of 1987. And it could be argued that Durham was as central to the plot as Crash Davis, Nuke Laloosh and Annie Savoy.
Bull Durham is a fictional story about a real baseball team playing what the Durham Bulls’ manager describes in the film as a simple game: “You hit the ball. You throw the ball. You catch the ball.” Of course, a major theme of the movie is that baseball is anything but simple, featuring equal parts science, tradition, superstition and myriad unwritten rules.
The movie follows Crash, an aging minor leaguer, as he comes to terms with the approaching end of his playing days during a stint with what was then Durham’s Single-A baseball team. Bull Durham was a box-office hit, propelling Kevin Costner to – pardon the pun – major-league status in Hollywood, with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins also becoming hot cinematic properties in the years following the film’s release.
With Bull Durham airing on cable over the last few weeks – yes, I’ll concede that’s a statement you could make on any given day of the year – my wife and I realized we’d never really taken a walking tour of our own city. Why not don our step counters and visit some of the filming locations to see how much they’ve changed – or remained the same – over the last three decades? This being North Carolina, we didn’t have to wait long for a perfect weather day for some low-intensity exercise.
On a gorgeous Saturday morning, we started at what is now the Historic Durham Athletic Park at 500 West Corporation Street. Originally named Toro Park, it wasn’t “historic” until the team moved to its new larger stadium in 1994 when the Bulls made the jump to Triple-A. Today, the old ballpark is a training facility for groundskeepers and the home of the North Carolina Central University Eagles baseball squad.
Sharp-eyed viewers of Bull Durham may notice some Bulls fans sporting Pink Floyd t-shirts in the crowd shots. That’s because the band’s Momentary Lapse of Reason tour stopped in nearby Chapel Hill on one of the filming nights and an announcement from the stage invited concert-goers to head to Durham after the show if they wanted to be extras in a movie.
One thing you won’t see at Historic Durham Athletic Park is the “Hit Bull, Win Steak” sign, which was installed specifically for the movie and later relocated to the new ballpark across town (though the movie prop had to be reconstructed as a more permanent stadium feature).
Across the street from the old ballpark is a fire drill tower visible in many of the home-game scenes. It was built in 1926 around the same time as the ballpark, but it hasn’t been used to train firefighters in many years. Today, it appears to be serving as a storage unit for the city.
From the fire tower, we walked a few blocks to 211 Morris Street to get a look at the old Imperial Tobacco Company offices. Bull Durham’s production crew used this building’s basement to film the locker room scenes. We were lucky enough to find an employee of the business now operating in the building who gave us a peek downstairs. Evidence of the filming can still be found in a passageway leading into the locker room in the movie.
Next, we walked to West Morgan Street to see the spot where Crash Davis takes his nighttime walk toward the end of the movie. That area had a gritty look when the movie was shot, but today it’s a fashionable section of downtown, with tobacco warehouses converted to high-end apartments.
By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch, so we followed some abandoned railroad tracks – with trees now standing firm where trains once served the tobacco factories and warehouses – back toward the old ballpark.
Relics from Durham’s days as an industrial rail hub can be seen everywhere downtown, including this partially dismantled train trestle now acting as a parking shelter at the Blue Note Grill on Washington Street (which is straight down the third-base-line from the ballpark). For those keeping score, I had the pork sandwich and baked beans – the next best thing to peanuts and Cracker Jacks!
After lunch, we walked up East Geer Street and turned left on North Mangum Street to visit one of Bull Durham’s most iconic locations: Annie Savoy’s house.
Technically, it’s the James Manning House, a gorgeous 1880 example of Queen Anne Style architecture (you can find that picture at the top of this post). The home has been restored in recent years and it’s likely that Annie’s candle-lit shrine to Thurman Munson is long gone. But overall, the Manning House looks much like it did in the movie, though the swinging bench has been moved to the opposite end of the front porch.
When we returned to our car parked adjacent to the old ballpark, our tour had covered a little over two miles of easy walking. But there was one last Bull Durham filming location I wanted to see: the pool hall where Crash Davis gives Nuke Laloosh his final lesson about how to punch – or not to punch – a grumpy drunk. As the pool hall is about two miles from the ballpark, we decided to drive to this last location.
The scene was filmed at the Green Room on Broad Street. Unfortunately, it was closed when we arrived, but a look through the window confirmed that it’s virtually unchanged since the late 1980s.
Other film sites – outside of Durham – seem to be similarly frozen in time: Mitch’s Tavern – where Crash and Nuke first meet Annie at the start of the movie – is actually on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, but it’s still very recognizable from the film; Fleming Stadium – where Crash created the miraculous rainout – in Wilson has been renovated, but is largely unchanged. Alas, the batting cages at 401 Par Golf in Garner – where Annie offers Crash some hitting (and life) coaching – were removed not long after filming, but you can still play on the miniature golf course that appears in the background of that scene.
Bull Durham is a wonderful movie – though I cringe every time Susan Sarandon pronounces Durham as “Door-um” instead of the more correct “Derm” – and it serves as an affectionate Valentine to the city where it was chiefly filmed.
Durham is no longer the sleepy Southern town as depicted in the movie. Since the filming, Durham has been called up to the majors. A walking tour is a great way to witness the city’s revitalization as well as its preserved charm.