Otto Puls didn’t wear his Yankees gear to Miller Park. How could he? The Brewers were his host, the night of May 9.
Puls, 81, is assistant equipment manager for University of Wisconsin men’s basketball. He is also the official scorer at home games, a post he has held for 50 years. Puls is as much a Kohl Center fixture as Bucky Badger or Mike Leckrone.
But make no mistake, he’s also a Yankees fan.
Puls made the bus trip to Milwaukee with the Final Four team that was being honored with the chance to throw out the first pitch in a game against the New York Yankees. Seventeen players and head coach Bo Ryan threw 18 balls simultaneously.
For Puls, the highlight came an hour or two earlier, when the Badgers delegation was able to go on the Miller Park field for batting practice. The Brewers were finishing up and the Yankees were getting started.
Puls was among a small group that was introduced to Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who was aware of the Badgers’ great Final Four run earlier in the spring.
“How many guys do you have coming back?” Teixeira asked.
“Almost everybody,” somebody said.
“I’ll really follow you now,” Teixeira said.
Puls noticed that Derek Jeter, the superstar shortstop retiring at the end of this season, was finishing and leaving the batting cage.
Puls introduced himself. “I’m a lifelong Yankees fan.”
Jeter looked at Puls’ Brewers cap, and grinned. “Oh, yeah, sure.”
How could Jeter have known that as a young teen in the 1940s, Puls was the bat boy for a city league team in Madison, sponsored by Gardner Bakery, that took a road trip to old Comiskey Park in Chicago to see a White Sox-Yankees game?
Otto’s dad had died a year or two earlier, and the Gardner players and manager — sportswriter Lew Cornelius — looked after him in a manner he never forgot. The trip to Comiskey was part of that. It was Puls’ first major league game, and it made him a Yankees fan.
He was a gifted baseball player himself, first at Madison East — Puls graduated in 1950 — then at UW-Madison, where he studied pharmacy.
At UW, he followed Harvey Kuenn as the Badgers shortstop. Kuenn signed a bonus contract with the Detroit Tigers and left the Badgers after two years. He went on to become an All-Star and later the manager of the Brewers’ “Harvey’s Wallbangers” squad that played in the 1982 World Series.
His words of wisdom to Puls consisted of, “Keep your eye on the ball.” Puls did it well enough to hit .293 in the 1954 season. He led the team in stolen bases for two years and got a tryout with the Baltimore Orioles. It lasted just long enough for Puls to realize his future was in pharmacy.
He did become a pharmacist, but kept a hand in sports, always, playing city league baseball, and, starting in 1955 — to earn some extra money his last year at UW — officiating high school football and basketball games.
By the time Puls hung up his whistle, he had officiated more than 1,200 basketball games, mostly high school and Wisconsin State University Conference. He worked 14 WIAA state tournaments.
His football officiating took a turn in 1972, when with encouragement from his friend Gene Calhoun, a top college official, Puls was hired to do Big Ten Conference football games. That first season, he did a Michigan-Ohio State game in Columbus that featured two fire-breathing legends, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, coaching on opposing sidelines.
Michigan’s Schembechler in particular was famous for his bad temper and good voice. When Puls retired from football officiating two decades later, Schembechler — by then president of the Detroit Tigers — sent him a letter, praising Puls’ honesty and professionalism. Otto had it framed and put on his wall.
When Puls left football officiating in the early 1990s, UW athletics asked if he could help out as an assistant equipment manager for the men’s basketball team. The student manager in the position was having trouble juggling it and academics. Puls took the job. He had been around the program since 1964, when head coach John Erickson hired him and two others as official scorers for home games.
Puls — who was inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 — has now been the basketball team’s scorer for five decades, and assistant equipment manager for two; he also officiates at practices.
Otto’s wife of 58 years, Barbara, is like a grandmother to the players. Puls and Bo Ryan have a long history including when Otto was officiating games at UW-Platteville. Asked if he ever called a technical foul on Ryan, Puls said he didn’t think so. “Bo would remember,” he said.
Puls greatly enjoyed this season’s Final Four run. He and Barbara had two of their three kids with them in Texas. Puls said he first got the feeling the team could be special last summer, during a trip to Canada in August, when the Badgers played five exhibition games.
After their last game in Canada, the Badgers attended a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Puls’ beloved Yankees. The Badgers strength coach, Erik Helland, knows Joe Girardi, the Yankees manager, and introduced him to Puls. They had a lively chat.
Months later, May 9 in Milwaukee, Girardi spotted Puls on the field at Miller Park. “Aren’t you Otto?” he said.
Funny how you can be 81 and still feel like a kid on Christmas.