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 3½" shorter (5'10½" 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 lists 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 tow-headed 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.