Throughout the year that COVID forced a retreat from most playing fields, Buck Paulson and Tom Woodring kept up their weekly ballgame. It was a form of T-ball, customarily played by kids ages 4-6, but in this case, the two participants were a combined 170 years old.
“Oh, sugar!” Paulson shouted when the softball squirted at an angle off his bat.
“Let’s call it a foul,” Woodring said.
“We give ourselves every break we can,” Paulson said. He placed another ball on the tee. His next swing made solid contact, and the ball rocketed toward the fence, hitting it on the fly. “A triple,” said a beaming Paulson, his 1.000 batting average preserved.
The two old friends started this game almost 20 years ago. They used to play in a senior softball league, but Woodring said, “We were standing around too much.” So they devised this one-on-one competition. Initially they pitched to each other, but now, using a tee, it was strictly a hitter’s game.
They put the tee on the outfield grass at Elings Park late last month. They have set it up closer and closer to the fence with each passing year. Now it was 180 feet away. Each man took four swings an inning. Paulson, 86, led off with a double (bouncing to the fence), triple, home run, and single. Woodring, 84, went double, single, single, triple. It was 3-3 after the inning.
Aside from some strollers beyond the outfield fence — who kindly tossed home-run balls back onto the field — Paulson and Woodring were usually alone in the park, making their sport ideal during the pandemic.
“This means everything,” Paulson said. “I love the outdoors. I love the energy it takes. I love the feeling of success.”
Don Paulson was his name as a ballplayer who grew up on a small Minnesota farm. In 1952, at age 17, he was a part-time relief pitcher for the Fargo-Moorhead Twins of the Northern League. He remembers seeing young Hank Aaron go up to bat for the Eau Claire Bears. “Howard Simmons and I were on the bench,” Paulson recalled. “We said, ‘Hit a home run and we’ll give you a dollar.’ We gave him a dollar.”
Paulson’s dreams of becoming a major leaguer never materialized, and he became a city recreation supervisor in Santa Barbara, the hometown of his wife, Carolyn, whom he met at BYU. He took up an interest in painting and was encouraged by master painter Claude Buck. Paulson asked to use his mentor’s name on the first work he signed, and thereafter he has been known as Buck.
Danny Litwhiler, his manager at Fargo-Moorhead, was a lifelong friend. He liked to say Paulson was inspired to take up brushstrokes by his instruction to “paint the corners of the plate” with his pitches. Paulson illustrated the cover of Litwhiler’s biography.
Woodring grew up in Santa Barbara. He was a sprinter and pole vaulter at Santa Barbara High, graduating in 1954. He also attended BYU and furthered his studies to become a psychologist. He competed in national and international senior track-and-field meets. He cleared 11’1¾” to place among the top age 60-64 pole vaulters of all time.
Paulson and Woodring became friends through their church, and their mutual affinity for sports led them to the tee at Elings Park.
Paulson recorded their hits — no outs — in a scorebook. Momentarily distracted, he asked Woodring, “What did you just get?”
“Oh, my gosh,” Woodring said uncertainly.
“Come on. It was just five seconds ago.”
Paulson had a collection of some 100 softballs, and most of them were scattered deep in the outfield when the second game of their doubleheader ended, maybe, in a tie.
Then they gathered up the balls, packed everything up in a modified golf cart, and headed home, refreshed from another fine morning at the ballpark.
Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.