Book Review: “They Call Me Oil Can,” by Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd with Mike Shalin

"They Call Me Oil Can," by Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, with Mike Shalin

They Call Me Oil Can is Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd’s autobiography. Boyd played for the Boston Red Sox for eight years, but his undeniable talent was too often overshadowed by disagreements with coaches and teammates.

The fast-moving book is a sounding board for any and all opinions Boyd has built up over his lifetime. Covering everything from life in the South to race relations, baseball to business, TCMOC gives the reader an uncensored, unabashed, unapologetic look at Boyd’s inner workings And if Boyd could’ve written without any of those previously mentioned “un’s,” his book might’ve been a lot better.

Lack of Structure Handicaps the Reader

Boyd admirably doesn’t hold back any of his life’s many conflicts, but he doesn’t inform the reader enough heading into them for the reader to fairly decide who’s right and wrong. Certainly Boyd wants us to like and respect him enough to always side with him, but how Boyd writes doesn’t make him particularly likeable.

Between Boyd’s delusional self-perception when it comes to his obvious cocaine addiction (a word barely used), his paranoia, his repetitive ranting, his refusal to apology even when he’s in the wrong, and his simultaneous wishes to have everyone treated equally and for him to get special treatment because of his background, the reader isn’t always inclined to take his side. And without enough information setting up a particular moment, the reader’s gut-reaction isn’t necessarily to believe Boyd’s interpretation.

A good example concerns a run in with some police officers in the early 80s. Without much reason other than Boyd’s drug history (basically, he’s the Dr. Rockso of professional baseball), the cops pull him out of his car in his own driveway. They harass him, they bend his arm back, they threaten him, and they don’t stop until a lawyer comes out of a nearby house and threatens to sue them.

It’s a sad story, one that helps explain why Boyd considers race relations in this country as bad now as they were 60 years ago. The reader sides with Boyd.

A few chapters later, Boyd recounts a tryout he had for another baseball team, one that fell through because some hotel workers found syringes in his hotel room. Boyd responds they’re due to the blood thinners he has to take, otherwise the arm injury he suffered due to the cops might kill him. Boyd writes this scene as if we already knew all that, but we don’t. The words “syringe,” “blood thinners” and “thrombosis” don’t appear in the book before this scene.

All the reader knows is that the cops hurt his arm in a vague, hard-to-define fashion… maybe. Knowing how bad the injury turned out to be ahead of time might have further allied the reader with the writer earlier on. Instead, we’re left to wonder what’s true and what’s exaggeration.

TCMOC in general relies too much on repeated statements lashed unsuccessfully onto a timeline of Boyd’s life. And because the book moves chronologically, some of Boyd’s earlier expositions/rants make no sense. It’s impossible to believe the incredibly complicated love/hate relationship Boyd has with his hometown of Meridian, Miss., could’ve been felt as a 4-year-old.

Too Much Tell, Not Enough Show, Especially About Baseball

Boyd isn’t a writer, so there’s no reason he’d know that visuals and details matter a lot more than monologues and opinions. TCMOC contains precious few stories. Boyd talks about how racist Meridian was, how great a ballplayer he was, how mean Bob Stanley was to him, but he provides very few actual events to back any of those claims up. Even if the reader takes Boyd at his word, more showing and less telling would’ve been preferable.

The best-depicted story in the book concerns a high school game. Boyd describes in lurid detail the crowd’s racist chants, the rocks thrown at his head, the way his teammates and a black umpire came to his defense. It even shows a rare moment of maturity from Boyd, reacting to the crowd by just striking out his opponents with awe-inspiring precision. The scene rams home everything Boyd talks about over and over (and over) again in his book, and a few more like it would’ve really crystallized his message.

Boyd wouldn’t know this, but former Boston Herald writer Mike Shalin should’ve.

What’s Boyd’s End-Game?

Boyd argues throughout TCMOC that all of his problems with Major League Baseball stemmed from the league’s inability to accept someone with as strong and self-aware a black identity as Boyd has. That’s certainly possible, though without time travel and telepathy it’s hard to know for sure. My gut, however, tells me his identity as a cocaine addict had just a bit more to do with the way his career went.

Boyd’s opinions on race and racism saturate his autobiography like … well… an oily mist, seeping into and coloring everything. He disagrees with the integration of American schools because they took away black independence. He disagrees with blacks entering the MLB because it meant the end of Negro League Baseball. He disagrees with ending Jim Crow laws because he doesn’t think white people voting to return things they originally voted to take away is the same as equality.

Those are all arguable points, but where does it end? Boyd seems to want a fully autonomous black society living side-by-side with white society. Historically, such situations have always led to conflicts over natural resources such as water and power, and those conflicts have usually led to bloodshed. And bloodshed, whether it’s “justified” or “righteous” or anything else, is always tragic.

Besides, such a scenario just isn’t feasible. Because of the interconnected nature of the world’s economy, some interaction between the two races is inevitable. And if two groups have to interact with each other at some point, putting them together at younger ages increases the odds of peaceful interaction.

They Call Me Oil Can tells Oil Can Boyd’s story the way Oil Can Boyd wants it told. Because of that, the book carries with it an incredibly obvious and self-serving agenda. If you can sift through all that, there are enough real insights about baseball and the South to justify the brief number of hours it takes to read. But finding them requires a lot of hard work.

Talented, but making things much harder than necessary. As went Oil Can Boyd’s life, so goes Oil Can Boyd’s book.

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