Dennis Ray “Oil Can” Boyd gained fame in the 1980s as an eccentric pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Boyd was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on 6 October 1959 to Willie James and Sweetie Boyd. He attributes his passion for baseball to his father, a former pitcher in the Negro Leagues. Boyd received his nickname after he was caught at a young age drinking home-brewed whiskey out of an oil can. According to Boyd, when he was young, Jackie Robinson “gave me pride” and underscored the notion “that it was only ignorance that was pushing racism.” Boyd reveres his teenage baseball years in Mississippi even more than his professional career: “Playing with my friends, that was the best times for the Can.”
He attended Jackson State University until the Boston Red Sox took him in the sixteenth round of the 1980 amateur draft. He made his Major League debut with Boston on 13 September 1982, giving up two earned runs over five innings and taking the loss. He split the next season between the Minor and Major Leagues before sticking with Boston in 1984, when he posted a 12–12 record and a 4.37 earned run average (ERA). The following year, he had his first winning season with a record of 15–13 and an ERA of 3.70. Tensions with the Red Sox organization and city itself plagued Boyd’s tenure with the team. Race lurked behind many of these issues. Ellis Burks, another Mississippi-born African American player with the Red Sox, recalled that Boyd warned him to avoid South Boston because of racial violence over forced busing. In addition, Boyd’s unconventional personality and drug use caused the team to conduct psychiatric evaluations of him. Boyd resented his treatment, and after an adultery scandal involving teammate Wade Boggs, Boyd scoffed, “Who needs the psychiatrist now?”
The 1986 season represented a watershed for Boyd. He won eleven games through July but did not make the American League all-star team. He exploded in anger and received a three-game suspension and medical evaluation. He returned to pitch the pennant-winning game against Toronto. Boyd started Game 3 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, giving up six runs in seven innings of work and taking the loss. The Red Sox then opted not to start Boyd in the decisive Game 7 even though it was his turn in the rotation. The Red Sox placed Boyd on the disabled list five times between 1987 and 1989 because of blood clots in his right arm. After the 1989 season, he became a free agent and signed with the Montreal Expos, for whom he pitched in 1990 and 1991. Midway through the 1991 season the Expos traded Boyd to the Texas Rangers, who released him at the end of the season, ending his career. In his ten years in the Major Leagues, Boyd posted a 78–77 record and a 4.04 ERA.
In 2007 Boyd headlined the Oil Can Boyd Traveling All-Stars, whose roster included some other big baseball names—Marquis Grissom, Delino DeShields, Sam Horn, Kenny Ryan, Chris Howard, Bill Lee, Mike Smith, and Derek Bell. The team played exhibition games and took part in various promotions designed to increase African Americans’ participation in baseball. Central to that goal was sharing the inspired history of the Negro Leagues with young athletes.
In his 2012 autobiography Boyd admitted to using marijuana and cocaine during his high school, college, and professional career, including smoking crack cocaine every day during the 1986 season. He also discussed racial issues and other on- and off-field details from his career. Boyd and his family live in East Providence, Rhode Island, and spend time in Mississippi. He has a daughter, Tala, and son, Dennis. He continues to pitch in two divisions of the Men’s Senior Baseball League.
- Baseball Almanac website, www.baseball-almanac.com
- Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd with Mike Shalin, They Call Me Oil Can: Baseball, Drugs, and Life on the Edge (2012)
- Howard Bryant, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (2002)
- Terry Nau, Pawtucket Times (27 April 2007)
- “‘Oil Can’ Boyd Discusses Drug Use,” espn.go.com (2 May 2012)
- Mike Shatzkin, ed., The Ballplayers: Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference (1989)
- Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe (17 May 2005)