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"Interesting, amusing, puzzling and at times unsettling... [a] blunt, honest and sometimes painful work." —The Tampa Tribune
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Speaking candidly to veteran sportswriter Mike Shalin for the first time about his often tumultuous career in Major League Baseball, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd recounts a life that began in the Deep South of Mississippi, and the events that led him toward great heights atop the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park. As part of a stellar rotation
Speaking candidly to veteran sportswriter Mike Shalin for the first time about his often tumultuous career in Major League Baseball, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd recounts a life that began in the Deep South of Mississippi, and the events that led him toward great heights atop the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park. As part of a stellar rotation alongside Bruce Hurst and a young Roger Clemens, Boyd served a dazzling array of pitches to opposing batters, most notably during the Boston Red Sox ill-fated 1986 World Series run against the New York Mets; and while he was at once brilliant and focused on the mound, off the field—as he affectingly reveals here—Boyd was unraveled by the personal battles he waged with substance abuse and destructive mood swings. As one of the few African American starting pitchers in the history of baseball, Boyd offers a candid, insightful, and often funny portrait of an athlete with boundless passion for the game, his teammates, and the Boston Red Sox.
"Interesting, amusing, puzzling and at times unsettling... [a] blunt, honest and sometimes painful work." —The Tampa Tribune
"I'm still tormented by my past and it's hard to let go, because you can't let go of blackness."
I'd like to begin back in 1964, in Mississippi. I was five years old — I turned six years old October 6, 1965, the same year I saw Martin Luther King in our church — but I can remember in the summer of '64, as a little-bitty boy, when these two white kids, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and this black kid, James Chaney, came to Mississippi protesting for civil rights. They'd been all over country campaigning for civil rights, but then they came to the South, all the Southern states — Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia — and then they came to Meridian, Mississippi.
In the process of doing this they were murdered in '64, and their bodies were found two or three months later under a dam outside of Meridian, in a town called Williamsville, not too far from an Indian reservation.
At the time, we had my family — my dad, Willie Boyd Sr., better known as Skeeter; my mom, Girtharee Boyd, better known as Sweetie; and also one of my older brothers, Mike — at home. I was introduced to those three kids by my Uncle Frank, who brought them from the swimming pool in Meridian. At the time, there was segregation and we had a white swimming pool and a black swimming pool. He brought home James Chaney, the black guy, and the two white kids, who were from New York.
They were young men, I would imagine 20, 21, somewhere around there. I do remember quite well sitting in one of these white kids' lap and getting the comb caught in his hair. At the time, I didn't know what a cowlick was, or anything like that, but it was the part of the hair that was located in the middle of white kids' heads. So my mom had to cut the comb out of his hair.
After they got through visiting us they were supposed to leave and head up to Memphis. My Uncle Frank was in the car with them and my mom got him out of the car. She said, "Those boys ain't never going to be seen again and he ain't going nowhere." So Uncle Frank got out of the car, and then they left our house and they were picked up by the police and put in jail and kept there for a period of time.
At that time there was a curfew and after curfew nobody was on the streets. So, in other words: no witnesses. So they let the boys out of jail and told them to get on their way. And as they got going on out of town they were followed and intercepted about 25 miles outside of Meridian. A few months later they were found, up on the dam, buried, bodies crushed, covered up by bulldozers. Mangled and murdered by the Klan, but with the police's help. That's what made them stop. They saw sirens behind them — you're obeying the law and that's what's going to kill you.
I found out years later that these same kids who were at my house were murdered, and their story was made into the movie Mississippi Burning. That's why today, what I've gone through, I don't trust the police. Not in the South, not nowhere. I'm sorry.
The first white person who ever touched me was those two white kids. They were the first white people who ever came in my house. And the Ku Klux Klan murdered those kids. It's just something that's always in my heart. I really wanted that wrong to be righted because it was so close to me. Those kids were the first time I ever really engaged with white people. White people didn't come in black people's neighborhoods at that time. And for us to see white kids smiling in that neighborhood — instead of throwing things at us, bricks and rocks and banana peels and things, and calling us all kind of demeaning slang like "nigger" and "jigaboo" — that was dangerous at that time. It was a dangerous time for those kids to be in Meridian, Mississippi.
A lot of white kids who came down to work for civil rights, it was dangerous for them, too. Mind you, this was a period of time that there was real hatred in the air — white people didn't want black people to have rights, and they did everything they could to stop you from voting for these rights. Whatever it took, the whites did at that time in the South.
My dad was a landscaper and those civil rights workers created a lot of commotion around the city of Meridian at that time. It was a scary, scary atmosphere for anyone that was involved with them. And my dad and a lot other people from Meridian chose to take that challenge and hid those kids, from house to house, from church to church, in basements, in attics, in back rooms. And the same thing happened with us as well.
Being a little boy, you really didn't understand. You knew something was going on, but you had no idea about the toll that racism was taking in the South. Churches burned and you heard rumors of kids being beaten and that type of thing and how bad the police were. Our parents really tried to protect us as much as they could. All black parents did. You had curfews at a certain time of night and you had family curfews, too. You couldn't be out on the street and things because, I'm sorry, you could wind up hurt or even killed. You could definitely wind up missing if you were a black kid and you were found wandering the streets late at night, so it wasn't a good thing to do.
Mind you, the police departments and the mayors and the governors and everybody at this time in the Southern states were very, very bad people. You're talking about George Wallace. You're talking about Ross Barnett. You're talking about real bad people at this time — prominent people who are in control of situations and in control of government, so it was an awful time.
It was just a bad, bad situation. As I grew up I worked with my dad, who was a landscaper. This was his work all the way up until he died. This was our family business and I grew up with this job. At work, Daddy would often discuss with us what it was like growing up around this time, as black kids, as slave descendants. He taught us right from wrong. He taught us not to hate and to withdraw from any situation but, man, it was just hard. Even for me as a little-bitty boy it was real hard. Schools hadn't integrated or anything at that time. You had black school teachers in the black schools and the school was located near the house, so you were able to walk home. You live in an all-black community, so you weren't really in harm's way — but you were in harm's way. There were things going on in the South in those days — church burnings and that type of thing. I'm sorry, it was a very intimidating atmosphere.
At the same time, there was a lot of love and a lot of peace in the town that I grew up in, between the black communities. Blacks would kind of stick together a little bit more at this time. A lot of cohesiveness was going on between blacks. At that time in Mississippi, basically you were afraid of the law and the regulations and the rules that were surrounding your life.
Poverty brings this. Poorness brings this. But at the same time it brought a jelling, too. But as soon as these atmospheres started to evolve into integration and blacks and whites started going to school together, a little bit of change came. But it didn't come real fast.
I can remember what it was like growing up at that time, having a lot of siblings — five older brothers, two older sisters, and a younger sister who was killed in 1956, by my dad. My dad accidentally ran over his own daughter.
That same year, 1964, we moved to North Carolina. I really didn't know at the time why we moved. Daddy packed us all up and put us on this bus we used to own and we went to North Carolina. We took a few people with us and as we got up there we found work. Daddy was going to work in the tobacco fields. We stayed in North Carolina a little while, I don't remember how long.
When we got back to Mississippi those kids still hadn't been found.
They were looking for them all over the place. There were a lot of rumors, but who knows what was true and what wasn't. There were rumors about how these kids were found and that some Indians on the reservation had a lot to do with where the bodies were buried and how they came about finding them.
Mississippi Burning tells a lot of truth, but at the same time, living and growing up in that environment and growing up in the town and knowing the people that were involved with them — there was a lot more to the truth. There were a lot of things that weren't told about how and why those kids got killed, besides just going out protesting. That had a little bit to do with it, but there was more. It was a very angry atmosphere, and those kids were in harm's way every day that they were down here. A lot of churches were burned. A lot of people were getting beaten to tell where those kids hid or at houses where they stayed.
It happened a long time ago, but the presence was still there years later. James Chaney was a Meridian native. He was a black kid who was pushing for the rights of blacks in Meridian, and he was a close friend of my dad's younger brother, Frank Boyd. (Frank played ball, too. We all came out of black baseball, what you would call Negro League baseball — my dad, his younger brother, my mom's first cousins — was very prominent back then. As a matter of fact, it was the only peace that you had as a black community. On Saturdays and Sundays we'd watch and play baseball.)
To get back to the story of these kids being killed, it really affected my life, and still today it bothers me, because of the injustice behind something like that. And even though they eventually brought down the conspirators and everything, it still showed how bad things were that it took that long to bring about justice. It feels like right now, even though they don't keep people separate, you still have hatred in the South — just as abundant as it was many, many years ago.
* * *
Jumping ahead a bit, I have to tell you how I was almost connected to those killings in a different way.
After having a good year playing in the Florida State League in 1981, I went on over to Colombia, South America, and played winter ball until January '82. I got into some trouble down there when I was caught smoking pot on the beach by a policeman who looked like he was 15. It was, to say the least, an interesting time.
So I came back home to Meridian, and stayed for a couple of months before I got ready to head down to spring training. In the time that I was home I was trying to get my drivers license taken care of. I went to the DMV and they told me I had to get a valid social security card, because I didn't have the original one. So I'm there with the card they gave me, and I'm dealing with this black lady behind the counter. I thought that should have been sufficient. But she says no, and she's making me angry with her attitude, so I told her so. She's got a little authority, and she wants to throw it around.
I called her a "black bitch" right there in the office, and the next thing I knew I was under arrest. They were arresting me and I was arguing with them, and once they got me in the car they started saying stuff about how back in the day there was a place that they could take me.
It was a place called "the Mountains," and it was in Meridian, Mississippi. My dad said there were thousands of bodies — black bodies — buried in that place. Black kids would come up missing anywhere from the 1920s all the way up to the '70s, and possibly even the '80s. The kids that were supposedly taken to jail were beat to death, killed and buried in this place. It's pretty similar to what had happened to James Chaney and the two white workers back in '64.
So this is what the cop said to me: "I remember the day, and the time, that we used to be able to take a boy like you up on the Mountains, and you'd never be heard of again." And that's what they said to me. And let me tell you, I believed it, and I knew about it. And if I wasn't who I was — not so much the pro baseball player, mind you, but I got 3,500 relatives in the town that I live in, and my dad was a very, very prominent man, and my family was too — I might not be here today.
Plus, when I got into it with the cops, I made sure that I called my sister-in-law and told her where I was. So she came and picked me up downtown, and I told her what the cop had said to me. They would have killed me if it was just 15 years earlier, the cop said to me, while they were taking me up the elevator. And this is in Meridian, Mississippi. This is 1982, the same year I went to the major leagues for the Boston Red Sox!
And this is the type of thing that inspired my attitude to be the way it was against ... I don't want to say all white people, but hey, it is what it is. One bad apple might spoil the whole bunch. That's the way I feel. Because when somebody says something to you like that, and you know that these kind of people have murdered kids, and buried them forever, that affects you.
Just because you can drink at the same water fountain, ride on the same buses, and all these types of things, those are not equal rights. Those are permanent rights. Those are things that are justified to every man. Be it whoever you are, or what walk of life you came from, rules and regulations and Jim Crow laws have disturbed life all the way up until today.
I'm still tormented by my past and it's hard to let go, because you can't let go of blackness.
Now, I come from three different bloods. The blood that runs through me is African, but it's also Irish and Native American; Choctaw, to be exact.
My great grandmother's name was Leona Pullos — that was her Indian name — and my great grandfather, Len Boyd, was born a slave. They met in Central Mississippi picking cotton, soy beans, corn, etc.
Back in that day a black man and an Indian could marry in the state of Mississippi, though neither race could marry a white. That was on my dad's side of the family, and that's how my family tree began.
The Irish blood began on my dad's mother's side of the family. You see, my great granddad, Bonner Coleman, he was white as snow. He had two families: a black family and a white family.
Back in those days, a lot of white men had two families, and that's where I come from. That's where my baseball comes from. Both sides of the family's genes were real strong in the game of baseball.
Coming from that type of background made me three different people. The hot blood would boil when I drank. That was the Indian in me showing up. The African blood that I carry made me strong in life, made it just about where I could endure anything that life could put out there. After all, I was a fourth-generation descendent of a slave. The white blood that flowed through me made it so I could perceive and understand the life of being part Indian and part African.
I'm very proud of my heritage — all of my heritage. So no one can ever say that Dennis Boyd is a bigot! But still, I can't let go of how I really truly feel about life. These situations — and especially the situation of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner being killed with no mercy — they make you who you are. And times haven't changed as much as some people think. James Chaney is buried in Meridian, and every year someone takes a sledgehammer to his tombstone.
I'm still sad for the parents who will never see their kids again, and I'm still angry about the injustice they received from the Southern mentality of lawmakers, governors, lawyers, mayors, police departments, chiefs of police — most who weren't held accountable and still today aren't held accountable.
That's the early part of my years, when I really started to find out that I was a black kid and what it really meant.
When I walked into the bus station in '66 with my mom to pay some bills — that's where you paid your water bill, your electric bill, etc. — I'll never forget a white man behind the counter speaking to my mom like she was nothing. They didn't want you in the bus station — this is when they'd just passed the Civil Rights Act, but still written on the walls, just under one coat of paint, was prejudice and bigotry, just lurking around. Things hadn't changed just because the president had signed something. Civil rights didn't mean shit.
Excerpted from They Call Me Oil Can by Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, Mike Shalin. Copyright © 2012 Dennis Boyd and Mike Shalin. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Dennis Boyd played for the Boston Red Sox, Montreal Expos, and Texas Rangers during his 10-year Major League Baseball career. He lives in East Providence, Rhode Island. Mike Shalin covered the Red Sox during his 22-year career with the Boston Herald and is the author of Donnie Baseball: The Definitive Biography of Don Mattingly. He lives in South Easton, Massachusetts.
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