Commentary

'Oil Can' Boyd wrong about Robinson

Hall of Famer's civil rights and integration role can't be discounted

Updated: May 6, 2012, 10:35 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

There's provocative, and then there's flat-out insulting.

Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, who pitched eight of his 10 major league seasons with the Boston Red Sox, ventured into insulting territory during a mostly heartfelt, all-encompassing interview with ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney for Tuesday's episode of "E:60."

During the interview, Boyd divulged the extent of his crack-cocaine use, which included smoking crack before taking the mound against the Oakland A's in 1986.

[+] EnlargeOil Can Boyd
Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesDennis "Oil Can" Boyd won 60 games for the Red Sox.

But as much as I was touched by his raw admissions and personal struggle, I was disappointed that Boyd also used this enormous platform to disrespect a man who didn't change just sports, but also America.

"I'm not real thankful to Jackie [Robinson] at all because I'm me, my style of baseball, the way I played it in the major leagues transpired from the Negro Leagues," Boyd told Olney. "So that's why people found that I was a hot dog or I was flamboyant.

"Now the kids don't even know the ballplayers anymore, it's so commercialized. And they wonder where the black ballplayer went. Well, black ballplayers went to jail. In the last 20 years, that's where they are."

Boyd's candid words left a lot to dissect. For one, his perspective isn't entirely unique. In his provocative book "$40 Million Slaves," longtime New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden asserted that integration bolstered the white sports world while alternately destroying black empowerment and weakening our communities.

Rhoden argued that extracting the best talent from the Negro Leagues not only disconnected black athletes from their black fans, but also phased out black decision-makers such as owners, coaches and general managers.

Rhoden also addressed how black athletes have historically been stylistically different from their white counterparts, and in the mainstream, those differences have been used to denigrate, demean and criticize black athletes.

Rhoden had hundreds of pages to lay out the rich history of African-American athletes and chronicle their struggle for respect and equality.

That's a lot different from what Boyd said.

Boyd saying he's not thankful for Robinson is like any African-American -- truthfully, any person, period -- saying he or she isn't thankful for civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Robinson's courageous display of quiet dignity as he integrated Major League Baseball was a model of transcendence for everyone.

[+] EnlargeRobinson
Getty ImagesJackie Robinson's Hall of Fame career began a new era in baseball.

Robinson integrated baseball at a time when America's racial climate was extraordinarily violent. Robinson made his debut in 1947, which was nearly 20 years before lawmakers passed the Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial segregation and seven years before the Supreme Court desegregated schools. Robinson was issued death threats. Pitchers threw at his head. King once said of Robinson, "He underwent the trauma and humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom."

This is a man who doesn't deserve our thanks?

Robinson used his platform as a Brooklyn Dodger to show that African-Americans were entitled to self-respect and equality. How Robinson excelled at baseball while withstanding such widespread discrimination, hatred and intolerance is still unbelievable.

The grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, Robinson once told a New Orleans sports writer, "We ask for nothing special. We ask only to be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation's Constitution provides."

Without Robinson, there is no Oil Can Boyd.

Now, I can understand why Robinson's legacy is a complicated one for Boyd to digest. Boyd's father played in the Negro Leagues. The growth of Major League Baseball did ultimately destroy the Negro Leagues. Today, the percentage of African-Americans playing in MLB is at its lowest since the infancy of the sport's integration.

There are all sorts of reasons the game has seemingly lost its allure for African-Americans -- the immense popularity of football and basketball is a big factor -- but the last person who should blamed in any of this is Jackie Robinson.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

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