Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd's place in history didn't begin when he put on a Boston Red Sox uniform for the first time.
No, we must go back to 1964 and the small city of Meridian, Miss., when a 5-year-old Dennis Boyd met Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney -- the three civil rights activists who would be murdered that summer.
Boyd recalls sitting on the lap of either Schwerner or Goodman at his home; he was too young to remember which.
"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," Boyd discloses in his new autobiography, They Call Me Oil Can: Baseball, Drugs and Life on the Edge (Triumph Books; $25.95).
The pitcher, now 52, and his co-author, Mike Shalin, will share his candid, colorful, controversial story on Saturday, July 28 at the Naugatuck Congregational Church hall, opposite the Howard Whittemore Library on Church Street. Their 1 p.m. appearance is the latest in the library's sports authors series.
In the book, Boyd is typically candid, opening up about his childhood and racism in the Deep South, when he was forced to face alcoholism, murder and deceit. He found salvation in baseball, eventually emerging as the No. 2 starter -- behind Roger Clemens -- on strong Red Sox teams in the 1980s.
In 1986, Oil Can assembled a 16-10 record for the Sawx's American League champions, the club that came within an out of winning a memorable World Series (oh, do we remember).
One of his early stops was Bristol, Conn., then home to the Red Sox's Double-A Eastern League team. He was the pitching leader for the 1982 squad, compiling a 14-8 record, 2.81 earned run average and a league-leading 191 strikeouts.
"I had a great year there, I went to the major leagues from there," Boyd said in a telephone interview. "I remember Muzzy Field because both dugouts were on the same side of the field. That was pretty unusual."
Sure enough, he was promoted to Boston at the end of the season. By 1984, he was an integral part of the Red Sox's pitching rotation, right there with Clemens, Bruce Hurst and Al Nipper.
Boyd has mixed feelings about 1986, his personal accomplishments, the pennant and near-miss in the World Series notwithstanding. First, there was his being bypassed for the American League squad in the All-Star Game.
"Sparky Anderson didn't pick me in '85, and I was already real upset about that. Then '86 came around and I was pitching better than anyone. I was an All-Star, no doubt about that, but Dick Howser didn't pick me," he writes.
"I didn't care about the bonus; I just wanted to play.... I'm part of the elite group of people who play the game. That's what the All-Star team means to me. It was more personal -- a slight on me -- than anything else that I would ever experience in the game."
Oil Can was so upset at what he perceived a snub that he bolted the club and planned to return home to Mississippi. It took a considerable amount of coaxing by the Red Sox to change his mind. (He was suspended for 21 days as well.)
Then came the World Series, and the Red Sox just one out away from capturing their first Series since 1918, when the Mets scored three runs in the bottom of the 10th inning of game six to win, 6-5. Sawx aficionados still bemoan Mookie Wilson's ground ball that went between the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner to end the game.
It was Boyd's turn to start the seventh game, but Manager John McNamara elected to go with Hurst, who had pitched well in a pair of Series victories. Oil Can was hurt. And livid.
"John McNamara, he and others got behind closed doors and made the decision," Boyd recalls. "They said I had been drinking; no truth to that at all. They shunned me like I was a leper and they stoned me."
Bottom line: The Mets came from behind to win the final, 8-5, and none of the five pitchers used by the Red Sox that evening was named Boyd.
By now, it was well known -- by teammates and management -- that Boyd was using cocaine. He had put 47 wins in the bank by the time he was 26 years old. Save for a 10-6 (2.93 ERA) comeback season with the Montreal Expos in 1990, he was a so-so pitcher during his final five years. He readily admits that his final numbers (78-77, 4.04 ERA) should have been far better.
"The drug thing... A lot of nights I didn't know where I was and I threw shutouts," he admitted.
To register for Saturday's book-signing appearance by Oil Can Boyd and Mike Shalin, contact John Wiehn at the Whittemore Library, (203) 729-4591.