Donald Paulson, a slender, hard-throwing, right-handed pitcher from a small town in Minnesota, could hardly realize how successful he would become by learning to “paint the corners” of home plate. But the talented, eager, and hard-working minor leaguer – better known today as the painter Buck Paulson – used baseball to learn how to succeed in life.
Paulson spent most of two seasons pursuing his boyhood dream of becoming a professional baseball pitcher in the major leagues. After spending more than 20 years in his on-again, off-again pursuit of that worthy effort, he focused his enthusiasm and energy on becoming an artist.
By then Don had met and taken lessons in Santa Barbara, California, for eight years from a master painter, Claude Buck. Underlying his talent, abilities, and positive attitude, Paulson had great faith. As he wrote in his 1996 book Painting with Paulson, he dedicated his life and art “to further the work of my Heavenly Father. To love Him, and to love my neighbor as myself.”
Given the critical acclaim that the Santa Barbara painter has earned from, for example, his 16 years of seminars televised on Prairie Public TV in Fargo, North Dakota, Paulson continues to shine as an artist. He is inspired by his athletic experiences, which were hardly unusual for a person who came of age in the 1940s, by creating sports art and by teaching others to paint.
Born on August 30, 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, Don, his three brothers, and his sister grew up in a middle-class family on a farm near Pelican Rapids, a town of 1,800 near the western border of Minnesota. Typical of countless boys who attended small schools (his high-school Class of 1952 graduated 56 members), he played the three popular team sports of the era.
At Pelican Rapids High, Paulson persevered and became a star in baseball, basketball, and football. A forward in basketball, he played on the “B” team (the junior varsity) as a freshman and sophomore, but he moved to the “A” team as a junior or senior, usually entering games as the sixth or seventh man. On the gridiron, Don spent his first two years as a reserve tailback. As a junior, he was the third-stringer when a friend who was the center injured his ankle. Since players went both ways in those days, the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder moved to center on offense and linebacker on defense. As a senior, Don earned all-conference honors as a center and linebacker.
With heroes like Doc Blanchard and Bob Cousy, Paulson loved playing football and basketball. But his heart pulled him toward baseball. Don’s father, a semipro player, provided his son with a lifelong example of good morals, hard work, fair play, and knowledge of the game.
Don played baseball all his life, mainly at pitcher and third base. He played through midget-league baseball through American Legion ball to the varsity at Pelican Rapids, where he started on the mound during his sophomore, junior, and senior years. Typical of hurlers during the 1940s, Don threw a good fastball, a big curve, and, on occasion, a little changeup in order to fool the hitters. But his strong suit was control. As a sophomore, he helped his team win the district title and advance to the final game of the regionals. In his senior season, Pelican Rapids, with Don pitching, lost in the district finals, 1-0.
During his junior year the aspiring big leaguer spoke with a visiting guidance counselor about careers. When asked what he wanted to be, Don replied, “I want to be a professional baseball pitcher.”
“I wanted to play baseball very early,” Paulson said in a 2002 interview. “I just loved sports. They were my total interest.”
The St. Paul Saints of the Triple-A American Association invited Don for a tryout, but he pitched poorly, due in part to a recent appendectomy. However, his high-school coach arranged for a tryout with the nearby Fargo-Moorhead Twins, an independent team in the Class C Northern League.
According to Paulson’s contract card, he first signed with the Twins on July 31, 1952. A week later he was placed on the temporary inactive list, but he was activated again on August 17. Paulson remembered pitching in several games before the season ended on September 1. After that date, he was released, and the release voided his contract with Fargo-Moorhead.
In that month of August, Fargo-Moorhead’s new manager, former major leaguer Danny Litwhiler (the Twins’ third pilot in the ’52 season), was impressed with Paulson. The right-hander made several appearances, mainly pitching in relief of starters after the game was already lost. As he later put it, “I got my ‘saves’ by helping save the arms of other pitchers.
“It was very exciting to be there and be a professional baseball player,” Don recollected. “After I put on my uniform, Danny had me go down to the bullpen, which was just a mound and a home plate in foul territory, and warm up.
“He said, ‘Let me see your fastball.’ I threw a few fastballs, and he said, ‘Okay, that’s good. Now let me see your curve.’ After I threw a curve, Danny said, ‘If you bring your elbow in closer to the body when you are bringing your arm around, instead of having the elbow way out to the side, your curve should improve.’
“I tried it. Instantly my curve was so much sharper! I was so impressed that here I’m getting major league coaching. Danny could instantly spot things wrong with my pitching.
“Often I put on seminars about painting around the country. When the subject of sports comes up, I explain that my knowledge of how to throw a baseball or how to throw a jump pass in football all came from seeing still pictures. Today’s athletes have instructional videos and computer-enhanced programs, so they learn more, and they learn sooner.
“That day in July 1952 I threw batting practice, mostly without a catcher, into a batting cage. Afterward, Jack O’Connor, the team’s general manager, said, ‘Danny says you’re green, but you have a lot of potential. We’ll give you a contract for next year.’
“Well, I went home to Pelican Rapids really excited. A few days later my father took me to Fargo. We saw a game, and he signed the contract, because I was still 17.”
In mid-August, while playing on a Pelican Rapids semipro team and working for a local concrete company, Don got a call from Jack O’Connor. Jim Paules, the Twins’ first baseman, broke his cheekbone in a fight, and the club needed another player.
Paulson packed up, rode to Fargo, and he was added to the roster on August 17. He found a room at the local YMCA. Danny Litwhiler was also rooming there, while his family remained at home in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. The next morning Danny invited Don to join him at a local restaurant for breakfast. Afterward, Litwhiler paid the check and went outside to get the car. The waiter returned with Danny’s change, and Don picked up the change.
Reflecting on that meal in his 2006 memoir, Danny Litwhiler: Living the Baseball Dream, Litwhiler wrote, “Afterward, I picked up the check and left a tip on the table. When we got outside, Don said to me, ‘Mr. Litwhiler, you forgot the change that you left on the table.’
“I knew I had an inexperienced young man on my team.”
Litwhiler recalled that Paulson had fairly good stuff but he needed more self-confidence. In explaining his theory of pitching, Danny wrote, “I said, ‘Think of yourself as being an artist and the ball is the paint brush. The theory is to paint the inside and the outside of home plate with the brush. Never paint the middle of the plate.’
“Believe it or not, although Buck Paulson did not become a major league pitcher, he did become a famous artist whose paintings have been featured by PBS.”
Paulson later laughed about that memory, but he learned a great deal with Fargo-Moorhead in August 1952. He pitched a lot of batting practice, and he got into a few games, mostly in relief. He started one game, and lost, 4-2, to first-place Superior.
The right-hander vividly remembers the first game he pitched. Entering the contest in the fifth or sixth inning with runners on first and second and with Fargo-Moorhead behind, Don gave up a couple of hits and a run, but he got out of the inning.
“I was very pleased about making my debut in professional baseball,” he remembered. “Being modest, when I came off the field, I said, ‘I was hopeless out there.’ I hoped Danny would say, ‘You’re doing great, you’re doing fine.’ Instead, he put a new pitcher in the game and took me around behind the stands to the locker room, and he really read me the riot act.
“His last words were, ‘Paulson, you’re a professional. Act like one!’
“I kind of let Danny down with my attitude. He was saying that I allowed it to happen. I was naïve. But I gave the game my best, and that criticism hurt. Still, I had a lot to learn.”
After the season, Paulson attended Moorhead State College. In February 1953, Jack O’Connor, by then with the Cleveland Indians, found a spot for Don with the Cleveland organization. O’Connor drove Paulson and Roger Maris, a rookie from Fargo who signed a bonus contract with the Indians, to spring training in Daytona Beach.
On April 18, after spring camp, Paulson signed with Fort Walton Beach, Florida, of the Class D Alabama-Florida League. Appearing in 106 innings spread over 26 games for the fifth-place Jets, the Pelican Rapids right-hander started 12 times, hurled four complete games, struck out more than he walked (49 to 44), and compiled a 5-9 record with a 6.54 ERA. On July 13 he was conditionally assigned to Baton Rouge of the Class C Evangeline League. Little used, he appeared in only two games for Baton Rouge, losing once.
In that Korean War era, military service was a requirement for young men throughout the ’50s. Paulson, realistic after his 1953 season, moved ahead with his life by volunteering for the draft. He contacted his team, Fort Walton Beach, and on February 18, 1954, the ballclub placed him on the National Defense Service List.
Paulson served two years in the Army. After basic training at Fort Ord, near Monterrey, California, he was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Trained as a sound ranging specialist, he eventually became the Jeep driver for the company commander in the mornings. In the afternoons, Don played baseball and touch football. One day he had two wisdom teeth extracted in the morning, and that afternoon he stuffed cotton into the tooth sockets and played halfback on the battalion football team. “I loved my sports,” he recalled. Like many other soldiers in the peacetime Army, Paulson saw sports as an important part of his life.
After completing his military service in early 1956, Paulson went to spring training with Baton Rouge. Not quite 22, he was thinking about his future and confused about his life’s aspirations. He refused to sign the contract, and the club suspended him.
“A lot happened,” Paulson recollected. Disillusioned, he returned to Pelican Rapids, played semipro ball, and worked at different jobs. In the fall of 1957, realizing baseball had to take second place, he attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Don wanted to learn about the church and pursue a teaching degree. As a onetime professional, he was ineligible to compete on the college level. But using his experience and talent, he coached the freshman baseball team and pitched against the varsity.
In his sophomore year Paulson met the love of his life, Carolyn Blair, a California girl majoring in drama and English. The next summer he moved to Santa Barbara, Carolyn’s hometown. They were married on August 28, 1958. As years passed, they had five children, David, Dondi, Tim, Tanda, and Jon.
A Mormon since 1957, Paulson graduated from BYU in 1959. That fall he and Carolyn moved to Vauxhall, Alberta, with some of Don’s fellow campus athletes. He taught high school at Vauxhall and in the summers he earned extra money by pitching semipro ball.
Needing to help Carolyn’s mother, who was recently divorced, Don moved his family to Santa Barbara. He found a full-time position in Santa Barbara’s recreation department. His duties included supervising athletic programs, including touch football, volleyball, and softball.
In the fall of 1962, Paulson decided to use his skills for painting. A girl working in an art store suggested that he meet the local master painter, Claude Buck. Paulson went straight to Buck’s home, and he received the opportunity of a lifetime. Don asked to take lessons, and Claude agreed, saying, “Let’s see if we can make a great artist out of you in one year!”
The enthusiastic student spent years taking lessons on Thursday afternoons in a class of three people, and he continued his recreation work in the afternoons and evenings. Gradually he learned the three stages: creating the drawings, doing the underpainting, and applying the colors.
Paulson’s first solo project was a painting of a tennis racquet and a tube with tennis balls on a table. Buck offered constructive criticism, saying, “This part of the handle is perfect painting. Make the rest like it.”
Paulson later explained, “He was really saying, Do all three stages over again. Claude Buck had a great attitude. He was like Danny Litwhiler in terms of really making an impact on me. After that first painting, I asked Claude if I could use his first name as part of my signature. He was pleased, and I have signed all of my work as Buck Paulson.”
In 1965 Buck started an art show on the beach, and like many of his activities, the show continued. One year later he painted the first still life done totally on his own, a painting he called Hall of Fame. The painting illustrated a cap, uniform, ball, glove, and spikes, all waiting to be used, because, as Buck pointed out, you always have tomorrow in baseball.
In 1970 Paulson gave up his position in the recreation department and launched his art career full-time. He adopted a Claude Buck technique called “surface intensity,” which allows his paintings to make a unique, glowing impact. Also in 1970, Paulson went into partnership with Sam O. Battistone Jr., the president of Sambo’s Restaurants. Sam sponsored Don by providing the funds he needed to create landscapes, seascapes, portraits, and other works of art.
In 1974 Buck (as Don was often called) began offering seminars about how to paint. Eventually those seminars led him to appear on television, starting in 1988. His seminars have appeared on Prairie Public TV for 16 seasons, and they are available in DVD. He continued to paint freelance and offer seminars, often two or three a month. His website, Buck Paulson Art (buckpaulson.com), features his light-intensive painting, including a self-portrait and various sports paintings, many of which were created in the “explosion” style.
Paulson also demonstrates painting by videotape. A creative spirit who traveled a long journey from Pelican Rapids, highlighted by a heartfelt sojourn into pro baseball, Buck is down-to-earth, sensitive, and people-oriented.
As a youth, Don Paulson started out dreaming and believing he could thrive on a career spent pitching and getting batters out. His pro career was short-lived, but the former pitcher developed into a talented artist. Along the way Don learned, as Jim Bouton indicated in his book Ball Four, that baseball has a way of gripping your life, not the other way around. The difference is that Buck Paulson paints not only the corners of the plate, but also the whole ball game of life.
Last revised: October 29, 2015
Interviews with Buck Paulson, 2002, 2015.
Paulson File in National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.
Litwhiler, Danny, with Jim Sargent. Danny Litwhiler: Living the Baseball Dream (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006)
Baseball Guide and Record Book: 1954 Edition (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1954).