John “Buck” O’Neil’s long career playing Negro league baseball and later serving as the first Black coach in Major League Baseball is well known.
What might be less well known is O’Neil’s time in Sarasota. The historic player — who was born in 1911 and died in 2006 — grew up in Sarasota and spent time playing for the Sarasota Tigers, all the while working through the racism and segregation in the game.
City officials and members of DreamLarge aimed to teach and celebrate O’Neil’s local history to the public with a 44-foot-high mural on the Rosemary Square building in the Rosemary District. The artwork was unveiled July 21. Attendees heard from city and cultural figures alike that included Newtown native Walter Gilbert, City Manager Marlon Brown, and Orioles’ Hall of Fame member and ambassador Brian Roberts. Many spoke to who O’Neil was and the impact he had on the game of baseball.
“Mr. O’Neil had to leave Sarasota because there were only four high schools in the state of Florida that Black kids could go to — that was the time,” Gilbert said. “But he learned his baseball here (in Sarasota).”
“(O’Neil) could have been so bitter, but he wasn’t,” said Roxie Jerde, the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota. “He was all about finding ways to bring people together.”
The mural — created from everyday house paint — depicts O’Neil catching a fly ball as he towers over passersby in a Kansas City Monarchs uniform. Artist Matthew McAllister spent around a month working on the massive art piece, which was funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Sarasota.
McAllister received a photo of O’Neil from his family and set to work, typically getting up and at the mural at 7:30 a.m. and hopping off around noon before it became too hot.
“I still see things 20 things I could’ve done with that mural, but other people don’t see it,” McAllister said. “(I love) the size — it wouldn’t be as effective otherwise. It’s larger than life.”
O’Neil’s recognition carried over into the weekend when DreamLarge hosted a watch party for O’Neil’s induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It’s the highest honor in all of baseball, and it’s only bestowed on a select few,” Roberts said. “No one deserves that more than Buck O’Neil.”
The key will be donated to the Sarasota African American Coalition to be displayed in the coming Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum in Newtown.
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