First things first: Bull Durham, the motion picture, requires no defense. I’ve already written that the 1988 feature film, “along with 1984’s The Natural, establishes the archetypal standard for the splurge of popular baseball movies that would follow,” and I see no need to move from that position. Instead, the purpose of this post is to examine the defense of Bull Durham, the man, with a particular emphasis on the 1907 season.
Bull Durham, the human person, is known to baseball records as a pitcher. Those records agree that he played four seasons of major-league baseball between 1904 and 1909 for three different teams: the Brooklyn Superbas (1904), the Washington Senators (1907), and the New York Giants (1908-1909).
Beyond that, however, Bull Durham, Homo sapiens sapiens, becomes a bit difficult to pin down. What qualifies in today’s world as extensive work by a team of SABR researchers lead by Bill Haber resulted in the production of what appears to be the presently definitive biography of the just-like-you-and-me creature called Bull Durham. According to that sketch, an infant featherless biped possibly known as Charles Staub was born on June 27, 1877 in New Oxford, Pennsylvania. Staub, then or more assuredly later called Louis Raphael Staub (but never, to present knowledge, Rusty), began playing professional baseball for lower-circuit teams around 1898. By 1902, he had changed his name to Louis Staub Durham, and he seems to have added “Bull” then or shortly thereafter, the nomenclatural shift coming, Haber suggests, as the result of a possible combination of affinities for a certain brand of tobacco and a baseball friend named Durham.
What we do have, for the non-celluloid-based Bull Durham, are his major-league-level statistics. As memorialized by Baseball Prospectus, those pitching numbers are as follows:
It’s neat that possible-vegetarian-but-decidedly-carnal-humanoid being Bull Durham never allowed a batter to hit the bull (and thereby win a steak), but perhaps the most accurate testament to his baseball-pitching capabilities is the fact that he was allowed to pitch just twenty-nine innings, a very low tally for a season of closer duty, much less four seasons of starting and relief pitching over six years on the Gregorian calendar.
And, speaking of the Caesars, it looks like something funny indeed occurred on sentient organism Bull Durham’s way to the American Forum. BP’s flagged his scarlet number– a -1.667 batting average (allowed) on balls in play– for us, but what, exactly, does that mean?
BP defines BABIP as follows:
Batting Average on Balls In Play
A pitcher’s average on batted balls ending a plate appearance, excluding home runs. Based on the research of Voros McCracken and others, BABIP is mostly a function of a pitcher’s defense and luck, rather than persistent skill. Thus, pitchers with abnormally high or low BABIPs are good bets to see their performances regress to the mean. The league average for modern pitcher BABIP is around .300.
Hitter BABIP is much more of a skill, based on how well they are able to hit and place the ball, along with their speed.
In 1907, the year Bull Durham (the tobacco-smoking guy; again, the movie starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins was not released until 1988) pitched in two games and five total innings for the Washington Senators, allowing ten hits and four walks and notching a single strikeout on his way to a 12.60 ERA, a couple of guys– Charlie Fritz of the Philadelphia Athletics and Frank Isbell, a Chicago White Sox infielder and former pitcher who returned to the mound that year to face one batter, whom he got out and thereby earned a save, in one game– recorded BABIPs of 0.000.
The negative BABIP– again, precisely, -1.667– highlighted above is something entirely different, however. It implies that, not only did the batters natural person Bull Durham faced fail to reach base safely when they put his pitched baseballs in play, something even more calamitous happened to them.
At a minimum, it suggests that the Senators’ defense was extremely talented. Washington’s 49-102 record that year, good enough for last place in the young American League, qualifies that suggestion as a surprising one, but more supporting evidence exists. Oscar Graham‘s (no relation to the Academy Awards, for which cinematographic work Bull Durham was nominated in the category of best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen) only year as a big-league pitcher came in 1907, when he started fourteen games for the Senators and appeared in six more, pitching a total of 104 innings and finishing the season with a pie-in-the-sky -1.314 BABIP. Case Patten was in his seventh year as a starting pitcher for Washington in 1907, and he finished that season with a remarkable -2.069 BABIP. In fact, Patten posted negative BABIPs in each of his first seven seasons in the Federal District. (After pitching in at least thirty-two games for the Senators in each season from 1901-1907, Patten pitched in just four games for the team in 1908, his +.533 BABIP appearing to have triggered a trade to Boston during that season.) Other examples include Charlie Smith, Tom Hughes, and the great Walter Johnson, who registered a -1.053 BABIP in the first season of his Hall-of-Fame career with the Senators.
One might assume that talk of such a vicious squad would’ve been widespread, their reputation causing opposing teams to to make severe adjustments in strategy to try to counteract the aggressive Washington defense, much as teams did in the 1950s when facing the Brooklyn Dodgers’ powerful right-handed batting lineup. Bull Durham, for himself (and not for anything having to do with a very popular talkie that’s been released on home video and DVD and may soon become a Broadway play), had a 1.000 fielding percentage that year, as did four of his teammates, but little memorializing the Senators’ defensive notoriety exists. While some may conclude that the absence of an affirmative record constitutes evidence of nonexistence, others surely realize the more sinister–and, given the extremity of the scope of the situation at issue–more likely possibility that those possessing that historical information were vanquished in connection with it or, realizing the corporeal danger, found it wiser to refuse to retain or disseminate the information in the first place. (It certainly would not be the last time a Senator was involved in a coverup.)
From the numbers and the substantive record, we therefore can conclude that the 1907 Washington Senators defense that backed Bull Durham, the once-living entity comprised of the water and the flesh and the other requisite biological elements and not the projected-on-a-screen assemblage of moving pictures and sound, was unspeakably good, to such a devastating degree that it, like black holes and gravitational waves, remains measurable only indirectly and, like the one, true Void, both defines and swallows mortality.
Notes: Upon first discovering the statistical nugget at the heart of (the darkness of) the foregoing, I contacted BP editor Sam Miller in order to rule out the possibility of a database error, which Sam’s responsive silence accomplished. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I note that FanGraphs reaches a different result. Finally, while I have taken great but necessary pains throughout the above to make clear that Bull Durham, animal rationabile, has nothing to do with Bull Durham, the artistic work originally presented for the silver screen, it may be worth noting that, after the former’s baseball career concluded, he went to work in Hollywood as “a silent screen movie actor,” Haber reports, and the existence and popularity of the latter, together with the coarse-grain nature of all internet search engines, renders any further discovery of this subject effectively impossible (meaning, however, that it nevertheless remains far more possible than it was to hit safely against the 1907 Washington Senators).
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