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Buck Riddle embraces link to successful Atlanta Crackers, Ponce de Leon Park

Buck Riddle during spring training workouts with the Milwaukee Braves.

Buck Riddle during spring training workouts with the Milwaukee Braves.

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Former Atlanta Crackers first baseman Buck Riddle, 81, poses in front of his Sandy Springs home.

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Buck Riddle poses for a portrait in 1956, his first season with the Atlanta Crackers. He helped the Crackers to Southern Association championships in 1956 and 1957. (Photo: Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library)

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Former Atlanta Crackers first baseman Buck Riddle (right) poses in front of the famed Ponce de Leon Park magnolia tree with late journalists Furman Bisher (left) and Lewis Grizzard (middle).

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The center field magnolia tree, a landmark at Ponce de Leon Park for Atlanta Crackers baseball games, now sits between a shopping center and the Atlanta BeltLine project. (Photo: Jason Braverman)

Fresh out of military service, Clarence “Buck” Riddle had a game to remember.

The power-hitting first baseman, in his Atlanta Crackers debut, went 5-for-5 in a victory over Mobile on May 11, 1956.

“I’d never had a 5-for-5 before or since,” said a laughing Riddle, an 81-year-old who now calls Sandy Springs home.

The night of hits showed the promising Milwaukee Braves prospect stayed sharp in his year away from professional baseball — he spent the 1955 season with a loaded Army team playing out of Fort McPherson — and gave the Atlanta Crackers an early-season spark.

In terms of debuts, it was one of the best, even if it had an embarrassing finish.

“The fifth hit I got was a triple,” Riddle said. “I had been on base so much already and I’m exhausted. There was a line drive to left field and I broke for home, but I had to go back to tag and start off again. But my legs gave out before I got home and I fell flat on my face.”

Riddle is a living history of tales like those, proudly accepting his ties to Atlanta’s storied baseball past. Before the Atlanta Braves, there were the Crackers. Before Turner Field, or even Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, there was Ponce de Leon Park.

Soon there will be a posh, new home for Atlanta baseball out in Cobb County that pushes Ponce de Leon Park deeper on the list of the city’s venues.

“As a businessman, (the new stadium) is a hell of a deal,” said Riddle, who has thrived as an Atlanta business owner since his baseball career ended. “As a person who lives in Atlanta, I think the baseball park should be in the city.”

It used to be dead in the heart of the city during Riddle’s playing days. Fewer and fewer people remember the days of the Crackers and Ponce de Leon Park, which was located nearer the city center than Turner Field, but Riddle does his best to keep those memories alive.

Over the course of his adult life, he has shared stories, formally and informally, about the old days with strangers, acquaintances and his good friends in journalism like the late Furman Bisher and Lewis Grizzard.

Riddle found his way to the Crackers from his native Kannapolis, N.C., (“it used to be the home of Buck Riddle, now it’s the home of Dale Earnhardt,” he says) and through the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system. He signed with the professional team before he finished his college career at Wake Forest and received a $22,500 signing bonus, at the time the second-largest sum the club had given to a prospect.

The contract also included another rarity at the time, a stipulation that covered the costs of his education. His school-teacher mother insisted on that part of the deal, in addition to forbidding him from signing until after the school year finished in June. Looking back, it was a pretty sweet deal. But nothing like modern contracts, where the average major league salary is close to $4 million and the major league minimum salary is $500,000.

Riddle sold cars in the offseason for an Atlanta dealership — including a 1955 station wagon to Bisher — to supplement a contract that paid him $6,000 per year.

“These guys now get that for meal money on trips,” he joked.

Riddle never reached the major leagues, thanks to the personal peak in his game coinciding with the Milwaukee Braves being stacked with depth at his position. He had numerous highlights in the minor leagues, with his best season coming in 1954 for Jacksonville in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. He hit .318 with 28 home runs, famously more than home run king Hank Aaron hit for Jacksonville in 1953, along with 22 doubles and six triples.

Riddle’s big season in Jacksonville, preceded by stops in Hagerstown (Md.), Raleigh (N.C.) and Evansville (Ind.), solidified his status as a major prospect. After a year of military service and an 84-2 record with Fort McPherson’s team, he joined another franchise accustomed to winning in Atlanta.

The Crackers won 17 league championships from 1901-65, more than any baseball franchise other than the New York Yankees. They won 1956 and 1957 Southern Association titles with contributions from Riddle, who hit 41 home runs in his three seasons with the Atlanta franchise from 1956-58. His highest homer total with the Crackers was 19 in 1956.

Riddle’s 1958 baseball season, with a third-place Crackers team, ended up being his last. When Milwaukee wanted to send him back to Jacksonville, he resisted and went to work a regular job. His plan to force the franchise to sell, trade or release him to an organization with a clearer path to the majors didn’t work out.

“So I went to work,” Riddle said.

Throughout his career as a businessman, Riddle fielded countless questions about his baseball career. Most involved his time with the famous Atlanta Crackers and its picturesque Ponce de Leon Park.

The park has disappeared due to the urbanization of Atlanta and only the large magnolia tree, a centerfield landmark, remains intact. It sits behind a shopping center and backs up to an old railroad track, now part of the Atlanta BeltLine project.

The large brick Ponce City Market, previously Atlanta’s City Hall East, also played a role in the Atlanta baseball scene. It housed the Sears, Roebuck and Company’s division headquarters during the Crackers’ heyday. It was positioned behind the stadium seating on the first-base line.

Ponce de Leon Park held around 20,000 fans and also was known for its magnolia tree, which was in play until the fences were moved closer in the late 1940s, and its stacks of large outfield signs, lined up on a series of plateaus.

The venue hosted some football games, both college and high school, but was renowned for its main attraction — baseball. The Crackers hosted some noteworthy exhibition games, including showcases against the Yankees that brought Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in to face the Crackers.

Ponce de Leon Park was typically filled for regular-season games, not just the marquee matchups.

“It had really good attendance, well over 300,000, and it outdrew a lot of the major league teams,” Riddle said. “It was a classic, old ballpark.”

The players’ proximity to the crowd made for an interesting scene, too. Fans gambled on pitches, betting whether it would be a foul tip or fly ball.

“I was hurt and in the bullpen one game and the shortstop went back to catch a fly ball, and (to win a fly ball bet) the outfielder has to catch it,” Riddle said. “I heard a fan yell, ‘You (expletive), what do you think the left fielder is for? Let him catch it.’ There were always those bets going on.”

The baseball scene in Atlanta is much different now, though Riddle still follows the Braves and baseball closely. He still scours the box scores religiously, but rarely attends games in person like he did in his younger days. He maintains the relationships he made through the game, including those with his two closest friends, former major league managers Jim Frey and Joe Morgan (the former Red Sox manager, not the Reds star/TV analyst).

Riddle and his wife Betty have three sons and five grandchildren to keep them busy. He plays enough golf to shoot his age last year, showing off the swing that helped him become a part of Atlanta baseball history.

“It never ceases to amaze me how many people remember the Crackers,” Riddle said. “It was the most successful minor league baseball franchise in the country.”