SPITTING IMAGE OF THE BABE WHEN WILLIS (BUSTER) GARDNER DONS PINSTRIPES, HE BECOMES THE SULTAN OF SWAT

August 25, 1996

Willis (Buster) Gardner steps off the back porch of his ranch
house in Oberlin, Ohio. He is wearing a work shirt, his hands
are dirty and lines of axle grease streak his chin. In spite of
yourself, you feel your heartbeat quicken.

At 59, Gardner is 25 years older than Babe Ruth was in his
prime. He's also 3 1/2" shorter (5'10 1/2" to 6'2"). He drinks
sparingly, a few beers now and then. He doesn't smoke. Throw him
a globe and he would have a hard time connecting with the
business end of a rake. The closest he has been to camel hair is
the Cleveland Zoo. One more thing: He thinks it's not polite to
point.

Yet this tow-truck operator could be the twin brother of the
Bambino. "If my mother had been there," says Linda Tosetti,
Ruth's granddaughter, recalling the first time she met Gardner,
"you'd have had to peel her off the sidewalk."

Gardner's uncanny resemblance to the Sultan of Swat is part
looks: body by Jake (La Motta); hands the size of pot holders; a
nose that's a dab of Silly Putty away from a perfect match. It's
part voice: gravel over sandpaper. And it's part presence: There
is, by golly, a Ruthian twinkle in Gardner's eye that not even
Stanislavsky could teach.

Gardner's second career, as a Babe Ruth impersonator, began in
1992 when Robbie Roberts, a truck driver from Fulton, N.Y., ran
into transmission trouble on the Ohio Turnpike. Gardner pulled
up in his tow truck. Roberts looked at him, rubbed his eyes with
his fists and looked again. A few months later Gardner, on a
dare from Roberts, walked through Cooperstown, N.Y., in Yankee
pinstripes. It was like putting Ben Kingsley in sandals and full
makeup for a walk through New Delhi.

These days, in his spare time, Gardner practices Ruth's poses.
"I learned them from baseball cards," he says, taking one out of
a display case and sliding it across his dining room table. It's
the classic Ruth stance: body twisted to the right just after a
massive swing, bat behind his left leg, face looking off in the
distance at a ball that's outta here. Gardner has also perfected
Ruth's trot: arms up, baby steps. "I practice in the driveway,"
he says.

Gardner stocks two wool Yankee uniforms with number 3 on the
shirt. He has worn out two caps. As a prop he bought a
Louisville Slugger for three dollars at a garage sale.

At a sports card show in Mentor, Ohio, last fall, Gardner sat in
a back corner of a high school cafeteria in Yankee pinstripes,
stopping traffic. Up front, Gordie Howe, Graig Nettles and Leroy
Kelly were getting writer's cramp at the autograph tables. But
who would have guessed Babe Ruth would be there too? "Hey,
Johnny," a father said, lifting up a towheaded toddler who had
surely never heard of the original, "it's Babe Ruth."

Another man posed with Gardner. "I'm going to have some fun with
my friends," he said.

A 48-year-old man approached Gardner for an autograph. "I feel
like a kid again," he said.

The sports-card show was the fourth appearance last fall for
Gardner. He makes about $500 a pop, plus expenses. Not bad for a
guy who last faced a pitcher at age 11. In fact, Gardner didn't
know much about Ruth until fingers started pointing his way
about five years ago. "Then I started doing some studying up,"
he says. He says he didn't even look like Ruth until he was in
his 50s, when his face filled out--along with the rest of his
body.

At most of Gardner's appearances, a long-sleeved white
undershirt hides a tattoo of a skunk on his right forearm. But
the wool uniform gets awfully hot in the summer, and Gardner
rolls the sleeves up. "Kids tell me Babe Ruth didn't have a
tattoo," he says. "I say, 'Look, son, everybody is entitled to
one mistake in life. That was mine.'"

Funny. He talks like the Babe, too.

Dave Kuehls, who lives in Akron, Ohio, is a senior writer for
Runner's World magazine.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Gardner picked up Ruth's poses from old baseball cards. [Willis Gardner dressed in New York Yankees uniform with Babe Ruth memorabilia in background]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)