By Charlie Huisking
My favorite Sarasota moment? The day the community came together to right a wrong and honor a man who had so many reasons to feel bitter, but who instead radiated joy and optimism.
On a cold January morning in 1995, Buck O’Neil walked briskly to the center of the Sarasota High football field, where principal Dan Kennedy presented him with an honorary degree. As the marching band played Pomp and Circumstance and the student body cheered, the white-haired, 83-year-old O’Neil smiled broadly and clutched the diploma as if it were made of gold.
Seven decades earlier, when O’Neil was growing up in Sarasota, he was barred from attending Sarasota High because he was black. In an interview in Sports Illustrated, the former Negro Leagues baseball standout said that was the only thing he regretted in his long, distinguished life.
I was among of group of Sarasotans who read that story and decided to give O’Neil a long-overdue celebration in the city where he was raised.
O’Neil, who had attracted a national following as one of the charismatic commentators in the Ken Burns Baseball documentary, drew big crowds wherever he went in Sarasota that week. At a downtown luncheon, he had the audience roaring. He lit up the stage at a New College symposium with other Negro League players. At a ceremony at a baseball complex renamed in his honor, he was eloquent and inspiring.
Segregation kept O’Neil from ever playing in the major leagues. “But don’t feel sorry for me,” he told the crowd. “I got to pave the way for Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and the others who followed. I was right on time.”
Ken Burns, who attended one of the ceremonies, said, “This is a great day in Sarasota history, a great day in American history.”
I’m so glad I was there to experience it.
Longtime local journalist Charlie Huisking is a contributing editor for Sarasota Magazine.