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The Babe keeps on truckin', thanks to look-alike Gardner

A face in the shape of a Moon Pie, a nose resembling a knob of putty and a stomach the size of a watermelon make for undeniable recognition. It could only be Babe Ruth standing there in the doorway of his old homestead at 216 Emory St. He dropped in to help celebrate his own birthday, number 100. Imagine that.

But this wasn't actually the Babe, only an incredible look-alike who came by invitation to participate in the centennial celebration. How he became Babe Ruth II happened only last summer in Cooperstown, N.Y., an appropriate place for a baseball hero since the game was invented there on an afternoon when Abner Doubleday had nothing else to do.

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When he's not answering to the name "Buster The Babe," he's a plain ol' country boy, Willis Gardner, a 57-year-old truck mechanic from Oberlin, Ohio. It was in August when he went to Cooperstown to attend the Hall of Fame induction of Phil Rizzuto, Leo Durocher and Steve Carlton.

The word was around that Babe Ruth had somehow come back to life -- and, indeed, if anyone could it would have to be the Babe. While walking along Main Street, just another visitor in the crowd, he was approached by Linda Tosetti, a granddaughter of Babe Ruth.

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She went up to him and wanted to know if he could be, just possibly, her grandfather returned to life? Reincarnation was something she didn't believe in but the face and physique, only more compact, were just like in all the pictures her mother had shown to her.

That's when Buster and Linda got to know each other. "My mother always told me that Babe, her father, had a twinkle in his eye," she explained yesterday at the 100th birthday celebration at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum. "People with that kind of natural sparkle seem to have fun and are a joy to be around. When I told him who I was, he kind of blushed and then was almost apologetic."

So Willis Gardner became "Buster The Babe" and, at the urging of Linda and other Ruth relatives, has been portraying him at baseball gatherings. The resemblance is so striking that the Curtis Management Co., which protects the Babe Ruth copyright for commercial purposes, has taken him under its direction and is arranging public appearances.

"I didn't know until five years ago," admits Buster The Babe, "that I looked so much like him. Maybe my features changed as I got older. Actually, the only thing I have in common with him is we are both of German ancestry. I also used to try to be a catcher but, unlike the Babe, I was right-handed. I remember getting a lot of double-takes from people passing me when I was in a shopping mall or just out relaxing.

"I'd see their heads turn and they'd look back and point me out

to friends. I didn't want to try to be an imitation Babe Ruth. But when I see his picture and look at myself in the mirror I guess there is a lot of similarity. I'm proud of what the Babe meant to baseball and to America. I haven't researched him as much I would like."

There have been times when Gardner was unable to convince some inquisitive bystanders that he wasn't the original. There's a certain wariness on his part that he dare not do anything to mar the persona of the Babe. He might not even take a second drink at a social function because he doesn't want to chance allegations that anyone saw the Babe under the influence of anything stronger than soda pop.

Gardner said that when he was growing up outside of Cleveland on a farm, his family was poor and he had to quit school at 16 to take a job. He remembers not being much of a baseball player as a kid but that doesn't bother him in his role as a surrogate Babe Ruth.

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Autograph-seekers surround him. He wears a copy of a Yankee uniform from the 1920s and carries a Babe Ruth model bat. He signs his name as "Buster The Babe" because he has too much respect for the deeds of Ruth to do it any other way.

"Up in Cooperstown, last summer, when the Babe's granddaughter was so nice to me, I couldn't anticipate the reaction I experienced," he said. "Everyone made me feel as if I was some kind of a celebrity. Hey, I'm a working man, a truck mechanic. Nothing more. My wife carries a lot of pictures and when I look at them I kind of feel scared because so much similarity is there."

When Rizzuto and Bob Feller -- and both knew the Babe after he retired from the game -- first saw Gardner, they wanted to know all about him. "I think if you asked them they would tell you they were flabbergasted," he said. "It was as if they couldn't believe their eyes."

That's the same kind of reaction he caused at the 100th birthday party for the man he looks so much like. Maybe the Babe would have even asked for an autograph.



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