Monday, June 04, 2012

Book Review: "They Call Me Oil Can: Baseball, Drugs, and Life on the Edge"

You have one more day to enter the contest to win a copy of this book. Click here. My review below.


In 1986, my dad took my buddy and me to Fenway Park. As we headed to the ticket office, my dad spotted a man selling tickets in the street and approached him. The man offered up some seats, but my dad was no sucker--he wanted to make sure he was getting a good deal before he politely asked if they were good seats. "Best you're gonna get with The Can on the mound," the man said. We grabbed the tickets, walked into the old ballpark, and sat down. Right behind a pole. I learned a lot about scalpers that day, but I also learned about the magic of Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd. Before there was Pedro, and just before the Rocket really took off, there was The Can. And the mere mention of that quirky nickname could separate a man from his money just as it could instill fear into the best sluggers the 80s had to offer.

"They Call Me Oil Can" starts out in 1986, too, with a tale that springs right from the book's subtitle. "Baseball": The Can is on the verge of (so he thinks) starting Game 7 of the World Series. "Drugs": Instead, he finds himself in Central Park scoring coke and staying up all night getting high on the eve of the game. And "Life on the Edge": It's a life filled with anger and danger and toughness and injustice; but that edge is also the one The Can always teeters on, glory on one side, disaster on the other.

But this book is about racism. It's that simple. This is the story of a black man who grew up in a world run by white people, and entered into a game run by white people. There's a tendency for people who grew up with all the advantages in life to tag the oppressed as whiners, as people who "play the race card" and use racism as an "excuse" for their failures. Oil Can Boyd's story is a chance to see it from the other side. Until you have banana peels thrown at you for doing nothing but playing a game with people who don't look like you, or have cops attack you in your own driveway for no reason, or get denied a loan despite having plenty of money, you can't know what it's like.

As The Can points out, "when I first left Mississippi it was the Ku Klux Klan that held you down [...] When I came back [after his baseball career in the 1990s], it was [...] the sons and grandsons of those Klansmen [...]." He's had racism rear its cowardly head so often throughout his life, it's made him go so far as to say he's against integration. He shares his ongoing struggle with this--he wants everyone to be treated equally, wants to celebrate the differences in people, but still has trouble ever trusting a white man, and it's hard to blame him. It's almost as if he's decided black people would be better off just left alone rather than having to deal with being treated as something lower than animals, under the guise of an integration that he feels is really just the white man "allowing" the black man to share his world--if he's good.

But that makes even more heartwarming the tale of Boyd's fellow Mississippian white friend and lawyer who was inspired by an ancestor who fought in the Civil War--for the North--to fight for the rights of the very black people he was brought up to hate, including The Can in his struggles with racist bankers.

Boyd powerfully sums up growing up black in the South when talking about a conversation he once had about the War on Terror: "I lived through terrorism and nobody cared. [...] And it wasn't an Iraqi calling me a nigger. It wasn't a Saudi selling me crack cocaine. It wasn't an Iranian who drove through my neighborhood shooting it up. It wasn't an Afghani who kept us in economic bondage."

As for the drugs, he has no illusions of being "clean." A life-long addict, he's just happy to control his usage these days--his love of family keeps him from ever dropping too deep into that downward spiral--but he doesn't fall for tales of fellow addicts being "off the stuff." Drugs, among other reasons, is why he doesn't go back to Mississippi. He has an impossibly gigantic extended family, and everybody's related down there. So the drugs don't even come from strangers, they come right from your family: "True incest is when you got people that should be loving each other and instead they're killing each other."

Co-author Mike Shalin does a great job of letting Oil Can speak in his unique voice. If you've ever heard Oil Can talk, you know how important that is. And while the book has its serious side, Red Sox and baseball fans will love the pitching (he always called his own games) and locker room stories. The Can gives his thoughts on all his old teammates and coaches, and players throughout the league. If you grew up with the 1980s Red Sox like I did, this stuff is pure gold. It felt good knowing that Boyd seemed to get along with the players I liked the most--Bill Lee, Rich Gedman, even non-racist "redneck" Mike Greenwell. And as a guy who never really took to Wade Boggs, I loved hearing Oil Can's diss him: "I didn't put him in the Hall of Fame. White people put him in the Hall of Fame." And who would've thought Johnny Pesky knew the "black handshake"?!

Bob Stanley gets "credit" for making The Can into what some would call a hot-head. Can feels like Steamer teasing him as a rookie set the tone for the way he'd be treated by most people in the game, right through being snubbed twice for the All-Star team (along with the '86 World Series snub) to being blackballed from the game to this day. But Boyd always stayed true to himself, stood up for his rights. He wasn't about to do what was "expected" of him as a black man in a white man's world. Oil Can came from Africans who were forced into slavery, but also from Native Americans and the Irish. According to him, it was this mix of warriors that made him the tough kid he was, and got him (and gets him) through it all.

The story of The Can is a wild one. It's a quick but loaded read. Get this book for your baseball fan friends, or for anybody who thinks racism is a thing of the past or something that's exaggerated.
[Oil Can Boyd (with Bill Lee at left and Rich Gedman at right), 2008. Photo by Jere Smith, aka me.]

Mom here: A terrific review--you offer a handle on what the book is about while writing with a compelling voice as you describe the provocative insights into the heroic life of The Can. I believe anyone who reads your review will want to read the book. Buy it, even! And as a writer yourself, you know how crucial the latter is.
Thanks! (Also, I'm starting to think you may have been at the game I described, but I think just dad and Pat and me.)
(It was definitely us four for the "no vee do not block" incident at Fenway--when our car got blocked in in that parking lot despite assurance from the Swedish woman that it wouldn't.)
I agree. Excellent review.

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Location: Rhode Island, United States