Bible stories were a big part of my growing up. The dramatic tales of Moses parting the Red Sea and coming down from the mountain and Jesus routing the money changers in the temple and the whole fantastic narrative still live loudly in my DNA. I took the required courses on the Old and New Testaments at the evangelical college I attended, perhaps the most rigorous classes I’ve ever taken, but by that time I was moving away from religious dogma and discovering that the universe of the secular (a pejorative word to Baptists) was infinitely more attractive. But the Bible stories still resonate.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed in the Garden of Eden by God as the one thing forbidden to Adam and Eve. Even as a child I felt like the game was rigged. We’re taught that we are created human and therefore flawed, so of course we’re going to eat the apple. Growing up in a family in which movies, drink, and cursing were forbidden, it was inevitable that I’d become a moviemaker who loves his cocktails and curses like a longshoreman. Clearly, it was preordained in the Book of Genesis. My parents broke the movie rule a couple of times (the rules of forbidden behavior were dictated by my father’s job at an evangelical college rather than his own private beliefs). On one occasion, he and my mother packed my brother and me in the car and drove to the drive-in theater in Ventura to see Winchester ’73, a Western about the invention of a rifle that changed the West. Directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, the movie has become something of a classic, though I remember little as a five-year-old other than how cold it was in the car and that we were sneaking around on God by driving to another town to watch it. That was more exciting than the movie.
Another time in Whittier, where my mother’s parents lived and the rules were looser (they were English and not evangelical), we went to see Here Come the Nelsons, an Ozzie and Harriet feature about a girdle salesman. When you see very few movies, the details remain vivid—the climactic scene has a dozen girdles tied together between two trees across a road and the crooks escaping in a car can’t break through the girdles. I loved it.
The third movie I saw was in Taft, California, a tough oil town thirty-seven miles southwest of Bakersfield. It was my father’s hometown, and my brother and I were staying with my grandparents when my grandmother took us to see a movie based on a best seller about a preacher, A Man Called Peter. This book was wildly popular in the evangelical world and had been read by everyone in every church I attended as a kid. This was also the only time my rock-ribbed Baptist grandmother had ever been in a movie theater, though we suspected later that year she went to see Oklahoma! (they were from West Texas, and Oklahoma was close enough) but was afraid to confess it. So, my brother and I sat in the theater watching this weeper (the preacher dies) and when it was over we all sat for the second feature because it was unthinkable to pay for two movies and not sit through both. On came Ma and Pa Kettle in Waikiki. The title sequence had hula girls and my grandmother was mortified that she’d ruined us; she covered our eyes and ushered us out of the theater into the searing Taft sun. At ten years old, I had glimpsed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the hula girls looked pretty good, even if viewed in grainy shots of a tourist luau, circa 1955.
The illicitness of the darkened theater and a deep-red curtain drawn to reveal larger-than-life images accompanied by an orchestral score was overpowering. Even if the images were Ozzie and Harriet stretching girdles across a road and the good Reverend Peter Marshall expiring too young.
We didn’t get a television until I was twelve, and that family purchase was triggered not by the desire to see the shows everyone was talking about—Superman and Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among others—but because of baseball. Eddie Mathews was the star third baseman of the Milwaukee Braves but, more important, he was our hometown hero from Santa Barbara—and the Braves were in the World Series. This is more than anecdotal history; it’s the first great moral crisis I saw my parents confront. The Braves were down two games to one with the critical fourth game landing on a Sunday in Milwaukee, late morning on the West Coast. The first three games we listened to on the radio. To stay alive, the Braves had to win on Sunday, but we had to be at the First Baptist Church at the same time. After Sunday school, when we trudged upstairs in our scratchy wool slacks and clip-on ties to the weekly interminable eleven o’clock service, where the Reverend Gus Gableman, the least charismatic Baptist preacher in history, would drone on in a deathless monotone, something happened as startling as the events that overtook Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. My father swept us boys up and rushed us to our big dented Buick station wagon. My mother, late in pregnancy with what would be her fourth son, watched us go silently, which meant she had signed off on this intervention—her will mattered and was respected by all of us. Something was afoot.
My father raced us home nervously, saying nothing. We understood the gravity of the moment but didn’t yet know the stakes. We were being taken out of church, and God could strike at any moment. The Rapture might be upon us and we knew that meant all Christians would be lifted into the clouds and the pagans would be left behind, eternally damned. But given my father’s sudden apostasy, would our Buick station wagon be lifted as well, or had we forfeited a life believing in Jesus for . . . we didn’t even know what. What if, God forbid, my father and mother were lifted up into the sky to meet Jesus, and my two little brothers and I, because we hadn’t yet been baptized and received Gus Gableman’s warm hand of fellowship, crashed in the driverless Buick? Maybe I could climb into the front seat and manage to slow down the car before it hit a light pole and save us from a terrible death? Maybe I’d just be postponing the inevitable because the Rapture had passed us over? Maybe a forgiving God would put skipping church on this morning in the same category of sin as seeing Winchester ’73 at the Ventura drive-in or the girdle movie with my mom’s parents, who weren’t even Baptists? Surely God knew we had watched A Man Called Peter in Taft—that must be worth something—even if we saw the hula girls in the title sequence of the second feature. These were eschatological questions my father was wrestling with, and, as the oldest son, I empathized and sweated with him. Even if I didn’t know the issues, I felt them. I felt him.
My father, still silent, led us straight into the house, where a man from Ott’s department store (buy local, my parents taught) was just finishing installing a television set. Surely God would strike now. But he didn’t—he strung us out—and when the TV was turned on and the black-and-white image came into focus, it was—we’d completely forgotten, given the spiritual crisis—the World Series. Game Four. The installer was a man we knew; he’d had a brief minor league career that hadn’t worked out and now he was making do, and he understood the moment. He just said, “Eddie—I know,” as he left. We watched the game in terror, aware that Eddie was having a terrible series. But after the team tied it in the bottom of the tenth, our hometown hero hit a towering two-run homer to win the game. A great weight lifted up out of the room, my father looked around, his shoulders lightened, and we started going to church less and less.
The seed for the Church of Baseball was planted.
In my California childhood I was able to play all sports year-round, like most kids, but it was baseball that most captured me. My father had played in college and my mother had gone to Jackie Robinson’s high school in Pasadena a couple of years after the great player, so we were fans of Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. My father’s name, Rathburn, was vaguely referenced as having been inspired by some far-off, never-seen-nor-heard-of Texas relative; he went by Rath. Growing up in the redneck oilfields near Bakersfield, my father’s hero was, somehow, Duke Ellington. When Rev. Gableman would regularly warn the congregation about the “passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind,” because we were all “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), I thought he was talking about me and my younger brothers. It takes a while to sort these things out. My mother was an inspiring mix of inquisitive, tough-minded, nonjudgmental, and forever forgiving. Nonetheless, she never forgave Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for switching to the Giants. Rath and Peg were a formidable team.
Beyond baseball the TV provided all the classic Westerns of the period, which we faithfully followed: Have Gun—Will Travel, The Rifleman, Maverick, and Gunsmoke. The small-screen Westerns would in time lead to the big-screen ones, and I fell in love with all of them.
In high school, I started sneaking into movies with my buddy, often not knowing or caring what was playing. We liked the challenge of getting in for free. Without my identifying it, the illicitness of watching movies remained intact—we weren’t supposed to be there. But the range of movies I was sneaking in to see was a helluva lot more compelling than what I’d been exposed to as a child. Suddenly I was seeing movies over a wide range of genres—The Hustler, Dr. No, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I wasn’t a snob about my moviegoing and was happy to see an Elvis Presley movie if Ann-Margret or Stella Stevens was in it, but movies like Robert Rossen’s The Hustler stuck with me. Still does.
My college curriculum was built around how to be done with classes by 2 p.m. so I could head to basketball practice (in the fall) and baseball practice (in the spring). A brilliant English teacher turned me on to books, and fortunately I could fit a literature major into my sports schedule. Eighteenth-century English lit first got my attention and I became a Jonathan Swift junkie for a while, then Pope, then, when Albert Finney starred in Tom Jones just as I was reading Henry Fielding, it was becoming obvious to me that I was getting hooked on storytelling. My father, with his West Texas background, was a born storyteller. He could spin a two-hour tale about a five-minute trip to the grocery store to pick up a quart of milk. As we stood around the kitchen, his retelling of the simplest shopping errand would include a bit of a mystery about why the car wouldn’t start, and a fellow he ran into in the parking lot whose brother had survived a plane crash, and the guy who restocked the dairy section whose son was a local football star, and the clerk at the checkout stand about whom an epic tale of immigration might emerge—or just a great joke—and then the seven-minute car ride home with the inevitable flat tire because we always drove on bald tires unless we could afford recaps. Sometimes he forgot the milk. Most of his stories were about playing in a jazz band with Ray Ellis in London during the war when they were nineteen. All of his tales were full of details, sometimes more details than could be absorbed. Names, places, images, sounds—he didn’t spin short stories but great rambling novels.
The novels of the great British writers led me to the Americans—Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the gang. But the first writer I flipped for was Lewis Carroll. I consumed all his nonsense verse and read everything about his strange and tortured life. But, most important, I began writing reams of my own nonsense verse. When I walked around campus reciting Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”—“ ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”—people just stared. I tried it with my baseball buddies as well and they cautioned, “Don’t say that in public. Makes you look nuts.” Around this time it was becoming clear that I was living in two different worlds—the intellectual (or at least academic) world and the sports world—but it made no sense to me that they were distinct. They were dependent, connected, they fed off each other. At least I thought so.
The good English teachers at the college had assigned Albert Camus to make sure we weren’t just spoon-fed the Christian apologists J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus and the prescient The Plague were different and didn’t offer answers that evangelicals always wanted to make sure we were embracing. They called Camus an existentialist although he denied it. I read that Camus was a serious soccer player, a goalie whose passion for the game was intense and pure. Camus said he got tired of debating Roman Catholic seminary students because he wanted them to convince him that their Judeo-Christian ontology was the only path forward, but he usually ended up convincing them of his bleaker view. Besides, if I could’ve added a footnote to his words, I would have said that it’s more life-giving to be in the midst of a game stopping shots on goal and then going out for some beers to relive the game with your colleagues. The world doesn’t need more seminary students who bail out on their own convictions at the slightest challenge. Camus was an athlete—why didn’t they teach that in class? And then I discovered Samuel Beckett’s love of cricket. Of course. I began to think that Camus and Beckett were labeled “absurdists” not in spite of loving sports, but because of it. Sports is both absurd and ordered, and full of unknown consequences. A game means nothing and it means everything. And then I found Walt Whitman, who didn’t write of soccer or cricket. He wrote of baseball and called it “our game, the American game.”
Foreign films entered my life in college and some landed more than others—Fellini, Truffaut, and Kurosawa were big. I caught up on the films I’d missed and looked forward to the new ones coming out. The British directors like Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Richard Lester, to name a few, captured my imagination. But it was also a time to catch up on classic American films I’d missed: the works of Billy Wilder, silent films with Keaton and Chaplin and Lloyd, and the talkies of Laurel and Hardy, which I can watch forever. Nothing about going to movies was intended as preparation for a writing career or anything to do with film. I played baseball and intended that to be my career if I possibly could make it work.
It was in college that I realized how much I didn’t like most sports movies, although, upon reflection, three of the greatest of all sports movies came out at this time. More on that later. I’d played enough sports by then that I felt sports films got it all wrong. Their attempts to be inspirational felt cloying and false. When you actually play the game, there is little that is inspirational going on. It’s a competition; it’s physical; it’s a chance to test yourself. Sports movies all seemed to be made from an outsider’s point of view. They didn’t want to make a movie about what was going on inside Eddie Mathews’s head before he hit that home run. They wanted to avoid his serious drinking problem, his marriage struggles, even the bar fights defending his Black teammate Henry Aaron. What happens on the field is the least interesting part of the game.
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Shelton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.