Another mural has been added to the Rosemary District’s recently painted collection of vibrant public art, turning the "just north of downtown" neighborhood into a colorful, photo op destination.
The newest mural is of baseball icon John “Buck” O’Neil, who's being immortalized in a 40-foot rendering at 1468 Boulevard of the Arts. The mural will be unveiled on July 24, the same day O’Neil will be posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The mural is a part of the Rosemary Art + Design District's (RADD) Walter Gilbert Mural Initiative, dedicated to highlighting the stories and people from the district’s not-so-distant past name of Overtown, Sarasota’s first Black neighborhood.
“Buck O’Neil lived in Overtown and moved to Newtown [an area north of the Rosemary District] as the community was changing,” says 70-year-old Gilbert, a fourth-generation Sarasotan. As a trailblazer for racial equality in sports, “we determined Buck to be the first historical figure we’d commemorate,” he says.
“What we’re trying to do is advance the neighborhood and people's understanding of what it used to be. Historic murals like this are in effect memorializing and honoring pioneers from the past generation,” says RADD founder Anand Pallegar.
In his early life, O'Neil worked the celery fields in Sarasota while his father ran a pool hall in Newtown. Because Jim Crow laws barred O'Neil from attending school locally, he eventually left Sarasota to go to high school in Jacksonville—where, at the time, it was one of just four high schools in the state that welcomed Black students.
O’Neil went on to play for the Negro American League’s Memphis Red Sox in 1937 and made his professional debut in 1938 as the Kansas City Monarchs’ first baseman. Throughout his 10 years with the team, he was a power player, reaching several milestones, including being named Negro American League batting champion twice and becoming a three-time All Star first baseman. He went on to manage the Kansas City Monarchs from 1948 through 1955, and became baseball's first Black coach when he was added to the Chicago Cubs' coaching staff in 1962.
Before he died in 2006, at the age of 94, he'd spent almost 70 years of his life in the professional baseball world. For his last 16 years, he amplified Black voices in sports during his time as chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum that he co-founded in Kansas City. His upcoming induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame is long overdue.
Perched on a lift up to 50 feet high, Palmetto-based artist Matt McAllister, 40, recently finished the mural, working from an old black and white photo of O’Neil in his prime, provided by his family members. “I cleaned it up, added color and am accounting for detail lost in the image,” McAllister says. Despite spending roughly 10 days in the scorching July heat at work on the mural, “[O'Neil] opened the path for others and I’m so honored to do it,” McAllister says.
Future Gilbert Mural Initiative mural subjects are slated to include Emma E. Booker, who taught Black students in segregated Sarasota in 1914, and Lewis Colson and Leonard Reid, who both helped establish Overtown.
Register for free to attend the mural unveiling, which includes free food, drinks and a watch party of the induction ceremony on Sunday, July 24, from 1 to 5 p.m. at 513 Central Ave.