Cooperstown Confidential: The sad saga of Oil Can Boyd

Oil Can Boyd made news earlier in the week when he revealed to ESPN that he had used crack cocaine “every damn day” during the 1986 season. Not only that, but during one start in Oakland, he kept some of the crack tucked into his cap while he was on the mound.

Ordinarily, we might treat such revelations with skepticism, since retired players are known to exaggerate both their sins and their accomplishments. But in the case of Boyd, I believe him. I believe every word of it. Given his history, Oil Can Boyd was capable of committing such massive indiscretion.

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If you were to say the name of Dennis Boyd to fans who remember the 1980s, you might receive a blank stare or two. But the name Oil Can Boyd stirs memories. Some players are identified through their nicknames, and that’s certainly the case with Boyd. The name Dennis Boyd sounds like it belongs to an accountant or a lawyer. Oil Can Boyd sounds like a colorful character who played baseball. And that he was, for both good and bad.

A nickname can also indicate that a player is a little bit different, which certainly applies to Boyd. Born and raised in Meridian, Miss., he picked up the name “Oil Can” because of his fondness for beer, which is sometimes referred to as “oil” in the South. Often referring to himself in the third person, Boyd liked to use other forms of slang in his everyday communication. Much like Dennis Eckersley, Boyd had his own vocabulary, which he liked to show off in his interviews with Boston beat writers. He referred to his fastball as “dead red,” called his curve ball a “yellow hammer,” and listed other pitches as “in-shooters” and “out-shooters.” Not surprisingly, Boyd became one of the favorite interview targets of the Boston beat writers.

In addition, Boyd’s sense of logic, and his apparent lack of common sense, made him fodder for the fans and the media. When a game was postponed at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium because of fog coming in from Lake Erie, Boyd delivered a profound judgment. “That’s what you get for building a ballpark on the ocean.”

Red Sox fans took a liking to Boyd. Even though, at 6-foot-2, he weighed only 150 pounds, he was a durable, tough starter who took the ball time after time. Throwing with his straight over-the-top delivery, Boyd piled up over 270 innings in 1985; it was a remarkable total for one who appeared so frail and fragile.

Boyd, however, was not popular with other players around the American League. They resented his fist-pumping and finger-pointing, on-field habits that were not as readily accepted in the 1980s as they might be in today’s more freewheeling times.

Similarly, Boyd did not always endear himself to his fellow Red Sox. He frequently lost his temper, too often for their liking. When a teammate tried to calm him down, Boyd often reacted with more rage, leading to unpleasant confrontations in the clubhouse. Once, Boyd and Red Sox slugger Jim Rice became embroiled in a shouting match. Boyd became so infuriated that he challenged Rice to a fight, which likely would not have ended well for “The Can.” Boyd weighed about 50 pounds less than Rice, who checked in at over 200.

Boyd’s problems reached a crest in 1986, the year that he claims to have used crack on a daily basis. Ironically, it was his finest major league season. Boyd pitched brilliantly over the first half of the season, winning 11 games for the Sox. He appeared to be a lock to make the American League All-Star team. Dick Howser, the manager of the defending world champion Royals, indicated that he wanted to include Boyd as one of his pitching selections, but he felt that he needed an extra bat on the roster to maximize his chances of winning. So Howser, reluctantly, left The Can off the team.

Not caring for explanations or rationales, Boyd was furious with Howser over the snub. He was particularly upset at losing out on a $25,000 All-Star bonus in his contrast.

In the middle of the Red Sox clubhouse, Boyd screamed profanities before leaving the room in a rage. When Boyd returned a few hours later, he found security guards stationed at the clubhouse door. They kept him out of the room, which may have been an overreaction, and only inflamed the situation. Boyd became more enraged, which prompted the Red Sox to suspend him three days for his clubhouse tantrum. At the suggestion of the Red Sox, Boyd eventually checked into a hospital to undergo some emotional and psychiatric testing.

Boyd’s state of mind did not improve over the next few weeks. One day, narcotics officers pulled him over in nearly Chelsea. They searched his car for drugs, upsetting Boyd. The officers found no evidence of crack or any other kinds of drugs, but did decide to press an assault charge against the temperamental right-hander

The second half of the 1986 season also brought Boyd financial problems. With his debts mounting and his drug use continuing, Boyd spent some time on leave from the Red Sox before eventually returning and winning five games during the pennant stretch run.

Then came the controversy of Game Seven in the 1986 World Series. Some questioned why John McNamara did not turn to a rested Boyd to pitch in the climactic game. Both McNamara and Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer have alleged that Boyd, who spent the day drinking beer, was too drunk to pitch the seventh game.

Boyd struggled mightily over the next three seasons, in no small part because of problems with blood clots in his right arm. Meanwhile, other off-the-field incidents occurred. During the 1988 season, Yankees manager Billy Martin complained to the umpires about the gold chains Boyd was wearing around his neck. A stickler for the rules, Martin felt that the chains, which had become one of Boyd’s on-field trademarks, were distracting his hitters. The umpires ordered Boyd to remove the chains. After the game, Boyd accused Martin of having an ulterior motive for his protest. In a memorable interview with USA Today, Boyd called Martin both a “bigot and a redneck.”

For Boyd, the issue of race was critical. After all, he was a child of the Negro Leagues. He was one of 14 children born to Willie James Boyd, who pitched for the Homestead Grays and Newark Eagles in the 1940s. Beginning with his youth and continuing through his professional career, Boyd became fascinated with Satchel Paige, borrowing some of his colorful terminology. Boyd succeeded in becoming a colorful figure like Paige, sharing some of the same kind of charm, but with far more rancor than the Negro Leagues legend. Not coincidentally, Boyd often drew comparisons to Paige. They were both African-American, both were tall and thin right-handers, and both liked to live in an unconventional, frenetic manner.

Like Paige, Boyd felt racism, but in more subtle ways. He leveled a charge of racism against one of his Red Sox managers, Joe Morgan. “I think [Morgan] believes black people have green tails and green blood,” Boyd told the Boston Globe in 1990. “Morgan was bad for me,” Boyd said bluntly. “He felt blacks couldn’t pitch. He felt they couldn’t think out there on the mound.”

With race becoming a major force during Boyd’s career, he found himself at a crossroads in Boston. After three straight down years with the Red Sox, they happily watched him become a free agent and sign with the Expos. Boyd posted a remarkable comeback, putting up a career best ERA of 2.92 while winning 10 games for Montreal.

After a solid start to the 1991 season, the Expos made The Can trade bait. They sent him to the Rangers for three minor league pitching prospects. The Rangers believed that Boyd would help them win the American League West, but he instead pitched the worst ball of his career. With a 6.68 ERA and 81 hits allowed in 62 innings, Boyd was a disaster in Texas, and the Rangers finished a distant third to the Oakland A’s.

It turned out that Boyd was pitching hurt. The recurring blood clots in his pitching arm, which had bothered him since the late ’80s, essentially forced him to retire after the ’91 season. That would have marked a traditional end to his career as a pitcher, but that just didn’t fit with someone as unconventional as Boyd. In 1999, he decided to return to the game as a player-owner. He purchased a majority interest in the Queen City Bombers, an independent minor league team, and announced that he would start on Opening Day for the club in the year 2000—nine years after throwing his final major league pitch.

Six years later, Boyd resumed his pitching career in Brockton, Mass. At the age of 45, Boyd, who had maintained his weight close to the 150-pound level of his major league days, pitched creditably for the minor league Brockton Rox.

Boyd’s on-field performance, combined with his drawing power, earned him selection to the Can-Am Association All-Star Game, where he drew the longest standing ovation of any player on either team. As he continued to pitch well, his popularity grew. Perhaps having learned from his earlier mistakes, he became one of the most fan-friendly players in the Can-Am league, willingly signing autographs and shaking hands with everyone he could.

Yet, as popular as Boyd had become, he just could not avoid trouble. That September, he was indicted on charges of making threatening phone calls to his ex-girlfriend. In November of 2005, he surrendered to federal agents in Mississippi.

Boyd has mostly stayed out of the spotlight since then, until publishing his autobiography this spring and then making waves with his comments to ESPN. Although his revelation of crack cocaine use has resulted in a fair share of one-liners and snarky remarks from fans and bloggers, there is really nothing humorous about Boyd’s bad habit.

How much of a toll did Boyd’s cocaine use take on his body? And how much of his petulant, unpredictable behavior stemmed from his heavy use of drugs? How much longer a career might Boyd have had if he simply had taken care of himself? Possible answers to these questions raise the sad issue of wasted talent.

There is another perspective to be taken as well. Given the death tolls from crack cocaine use in the 1980s and 1990s—and for collateral evidence, just take a look at some of the abandoned crack houses in major cities—perhaps Oil Can Boyd is just fortunate to be alive.

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Comments

  1. diskojoe said...

    As a Red Sox fan, I remember when Oil Can was passed over for Game 7 in the ‘86 World Series. I think he also made a major stink over that.

    On a happier note, I just finished reading your biography of Roberto Clemente (The Great One), which I found at my library & enjoyed very much.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    Thanks, diskojoe. The book is out of print, so I am glad to hear that you obtained a copy.

  3. Cliff Blau said...

    I seem to recall that during the tirade that got him suspended in 1986, he tore up his uniform, ala Dizzy Dean.  But for some reason, it wasn’t regarded as endearing when Boyd did it.

    Boyd actually made him initial comeback in independent ball in 1994, and had a 26-10 record for four years.

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