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Sarasota's 'hometown hero' Buck O'Neil heads to Baseball Hall of Fame

Negro League star Buck O'Neil was born in Carrabelle, Florida but grew up in Sarasota's Newtown and is considered the first Black Major League Baseball coach.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Late baseball legend John Jordan Jr., popularly known by the name Buck O'Neil, is finally on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

O'Neil was elected to the Hall of Fame on Sunday along with fellow African-Americans, Bud Fowler and Minnie Minoso, and three others. O'Neil was born on November 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 is considered the first Black Major League Baseball coach after 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.

The tap for the Hall of Fame honor comes after the continued clamor for the recognition of African-American baseball players like O'Neil, who navigated discrimination and broke barriers prior to the desegregation of MLB.

Stories like O'Neil's are bringing urgency to Sarasota's ongoing development of a cultural center and history museum.

"We are going to tell Buck's story in this house and in this new facility. The 17,000 square-foot facility that we're going to build," said Vickie Oldham, CEO of Sarasota African American Coalition.

Oldham was hosting a private tour at the historic home of Leonard Reid, one of Sarasota's Pioneer African-American settlers. There are plans to move the building to the site that would become the Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum. A place to showcase the city's African-American culture and heritage which also includes the O'Neil early youth before his baseball stardom.

"That's a big deal because it's taken too long. We have been waiting for this honor for years," Oldham said.

In February, in recognition of Black History Month, Oldham held an exhibition honoring O'Neil's life and legacy and his connection to Sarasota.

O'Neil, who was raised in the Newtown neighborhood of Sarasota, 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 and thus he was barred from enrolling in Sarasota High School.

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 and returned to the Monarchs at the start of the 1946 season. Just as in baseball, before and after the war, O'Neil had also faced discrimination due to his race while in the service of his country.

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 October 6, 2006, at the age of 94 due to heart failure and bone marrow cancer. A few months after his passing, he was short of the required votes for the Hall of Fame induction. Many critics, sports fans and community leaders said O'Neil's election on Sunday was long overdue.

"There is a racial reckoning happening in this country right now because of all the police shootings and killings and off late, Ahmaud Arbery," Oldham said. 

"It is important because it tells us, well, maybe we are trying to right a ship that was going in the wrong direction, particularly with residents in Sarasota where Buck was raised. The communities wherever Buck touched are ecstatic today because it gives us hope that is trying to do the right thing."

"There was no bitterness in his heart given what he had gone through. I know that buck is smiling very very happy and this is an honor that should've gotten months before he died. He was such a wonderful human being," Oldham said.

The others following O'Neil, Fowler and Minoso into the Hall of Fame include Gil Hodges. The only living inductees include former Minnesota Twins teammates Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat. The newly elected candidates would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in January at Cooperstown, New York.

Meanwhile, the Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum recently received a $200,000 grant from the Barancik Foundation toward capacity building and support for efforts towards the building project. The moving of the Leonard Reid House from its current location on 7th Street to the Museum's home in Newtown, on the corner of Orange Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, will soon commence. 

The 1.3-acre parcel of land is city-owned and commissioners are expected to vote on the lease at a Jan. 3 meeting. The vendors have also been selected for the relocation and utilities and purchase orders are being processed, according to Oldham.

Visit Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum to learn more.