A hometown baseball legend will once more be honored in Sarasota starting this week, with the exhibit Buck O’Neil: Right on Time on view Feb. 20 through March 20 at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.
John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil grew up in Sarasota during a time of segregation. While he played for many years in the Negro Leagues and was the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball, many became aware of him only later in his life, after the airing of Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, where O’Neil spoke eloquently of his experiences with the game and refused to be bitter about the opportunities denied him because of his race.
Sponsored by the Baltimore Orioles, the exhibit is on loan from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. O’Neil spent much of his career with the Kansas City Monarchs Negro team, and he played a major role in establishing the museum.
While a youth in Sarasota, O’Neil was not allowed to attend high school due to segregation. After the airing of Baseball, however, he returned to Sarasota to be honored with a high school diploma amid celebration of his life and career, and he enthralled audiences with his reminiscences and his warmth, joined by fellow former Negro League players and friends.
The event opening this month is presented by the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition. SAACC president/CEO Vickie Oldham remembers meeting O’Neil. “He was a kind, genteel and charming soul with a heart of gold,” she said in a statement announcing the exhibit. “I met him at a long dinner table surrounded by Negro Baseball League teammates who lived in our area. He was the life of the party.”
O’Neil’s life as the grandson of enslaved Africans is documented in the exhibit, from his early years to his outstanding baseball career. Rare photographs are included.
Today, Sarasota’s Twin Lakes Baseball Complex bears his name. Plans are underway to unveil a mural and add his name to the field at Newtown Estates Park as well. O’Neil, who died in 2006, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which his family later donated to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
An opening ceremony for the show begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, and the exhibit can be viewed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Sundays. It is presented in partnership with the City of Sarasota, the Baltimore Orioles, Newtown Alive and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.