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'Larger-than-life' mural for MLB's first Black coach unveiled in Sarasota

John 'Buck' O'Neil, the first Black coach in Major League Baseball and a talented first baseman in the Negro League, will have a permanent mural.

SARASOTA, Fla. — A hometown hero is getting an overdue honor this weekend, and the celebrations have begun with the unveiling of a large mural that's meant to help keep history alive.

John 'Buck' O'Neil, a Newtown baseball icon, had his mural unveiled Thursday morning in the Rosemary Art and Design District, previously known as Overtown. 

As the first Black coach in Major League Baseball and a talented first baseman in the Negro League, he will have a permanent mural located near the intersection of North Lemon Avenue and Boulevard of the Arts. 

The mural was painted by artist Matt McAllister and is part of the Gilbert Mural Initiative which celebrates and preserves the people and history of the Rosemary Art and Design District, which was historically the first Black community in Sarasota.

"This is a two-year dream come true," William Gilbert of the Gilbert Mural Initiative said.

O'Neil was born on Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Florida but grew up in Sarasota. He rose to national prominence early on in his career in the Negro American League playing with the Kansas City Monarchs.

O'Neil spent years with the Chicago Cubs. He was first hired as a scout in 1955 and then became a coach in 1962 but was never allowed to manage a team.

O'Neil, who was raised in the Newtown neighborhood, moved to the area with his family at a young age. He had worked in the fields picking celery. At the time, young Black children were not allowed to continue their education into high school in many communities due to Jim Crow laws; thus, he was barred from enrolling in Sarasota High School.

"Buck had to leave Sarasota to go to high school because he couldn't go to high school here at Sarasota, so that tells you that things were different and it's a hard line that he had to follow to accomplish that," Gilbert said.

Faced with discrimination because of his skin color, he moved to Jacksonville where he had family. He was able to attend high school and take college courses at Edward Waters College, a private Christian-run institution that was the first historically Black college in Florida.

O'Neil had early successes while playing in the Negro League for the Kansas City Monarchs. However, on Oct. 16, 1940, he registered with the Sarasota County Draft Board at the start of World War II, and his life of baseball was briefly interrupted when he was drafted into the Navy in 1943. He served his enlistment in a naval construction battalion in New Jersey from 1944 to 1945, which took him to the Philippines. He returned to the Monarchs at the start of the 1946 season. 

After retiring from a life of baseball, O'Neil went on to many achievements, including establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City, for which he served as its honorary board chairman.

O'Neil died on Oct. 6, 2006, at the age of 94 due to heart failure and bone marrow cancer.

"Buck O'Neil was a positive person. He was always moving up in the world, doing his best and that's kind of what this image represents," McAllister said.

To accomplish the mural, Sarasota-born McAllister had to spend three weeks in the sweltering heat and exhausted five gallons of paint.

"Seeing it finished and looking back, it's kind of hard to believe that I did it just because of the sheer scale and size of this project," McAllister said.

From the top of the glove to the bottom of the shoe, the mural is about 42 ft. high and is flanked on the left and right sides of O'Neil's image by diamonds that measured 50 ft. in width.

The size is not the only thing that stands out about the mural. The organizers said the mural's significance to the community cannot be overemphasized.

"There's been a few generations since this was a black community. A lot of black kids and adults have no idea that this used to be the Black community, this is where we started at Sarasota," Gilbert said of the now gentrified Rosemary District. 

This is the first of several murals planned to honor local trailblazers of Sarasota's African-American community and it has come just in time for O'Neil's posthumous Hall of Fame induction. 

"He had to play in the Negro League, he had to overcome all that and become the first Black coach in baseball," he said.

Critiques and fans alike have argued that O'Neil's induction has been a long time coming. In 2006 he was considered for the Hall of Fame after several supporters, in a bid to race against time, had campaigned vigorously for O'Neil to be included.

However, among the 17 new members named that year, O'Neil, to his disappointment and that of his supporters, was unfortunately not one of them.

The Overtown, also known as Black Bottom, dates back to 1885 but never appeared on any maps, the Herald-Tribune reports. It was a tightly packed segregated village north of downtown Sarasota. 

Most recently, efforts have been made to preserve the cultural history of Overtown through the strategic application of creativity + design by DreamLarge's initiative, Rosemary Art & Design District. 

    

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