Willis Gardner has no trouble at all collecting autographs from baseball Hall of Famers. In fact, they’re the ones who seek him out.
It’s easy when you’re the spitting image of the greatest player in baseball history.
Gardner, clad in Yankee pinstripes or a bright Red Sox jersey, is a hit wherever he goes as “Buster the Babe,” a living, breathing reincarnation of George Herman Ruth.
“I’ve got a room full of autographed baseballs. I’ve got most of the big ones, Yogi, Enos Slaughter, Bob Feller. My first baseball was Early Wynn. They all call me the Babe. It’s quite a thrilling thing to do.”
Oddly enough, Gardner’s celebrity status didn’t begin until 1991, when he was 53 years old. A lifelong resident of Oberlin, Ohio, about 35 miles west of Cleveland, he showed up at Cooperstown one day unaware that it was Hall of Fame Induction Weekend.
“I was just going up to see what the place was like,” he said. “We had to park way out of town. While we were walking into town everybody said, ‘The Babe is Back!’
“So then my wife bought me a Yankee top and I had a Yankee cap. I had my picture taken more times than you could believe.”
His collection features photos of himself with all kinds of baseball stars, including Keith Hernandez, Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Torre, Bobby Valentine and David “Boomer” Wells, one of Ruth’s greatest admirers.
Wells gained notoriety by taking to the mound one day with an authentic cap of Ruth’s that he purchased at an auction. Torre, his manager at the time, wasn’t amused and told him to remove it.
Not for a lack of effort on his part, Gardner said he owns no authentic Ruthian memorabilia.
“All the collectors have got that,” he said. “Everything’s taken up. Babe’s granddaughter has very little stuff because all the collectors have it.”
Gardner has met Ruth’s granddaughters, Linda and Ellen, on several occasions and Linda’s personalized message on his own 8-by-10 photo is one of his most prized possessions.
“She wrote on one of my pictures, “It’s the thrill of my life to meet my grandfather that I never met,’ ” Gardner said.
Ruth’s daughter, Julia, was a bit hesitant at first to have someone replicating her famous father. “Then she came around and was glad that I was doing it to bring back the memory of her dad,” Gardner said.
In Cooperstown, all he has to do to attract a crowd is walk down the street. Kids stop him by the hundreds asking for autographs and snapshots. Just like the Babe did, he readily obliges, giving people a sense that they’re having a real-life encounter with a great American hero.
Gardner has been invited to all parts of the country from Babe Ruth League baseball tournaments in Washington state to Ted Williams’ Hitters Hall of Fame in Florida.
“I do have two pictures of Ted and I together. He was happier than heck,” he said.
While there, he was also introduced to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, but for some reason, “The Boss” has never invited Gardner to the “House That Ruth Built.”
“I’ve been to Fenway Park and I’ve done five Subway Series for the Mets at Shea Stadium,” he said. “I was a guest of Nelson Doubleday. I have no idea how he found me, but he invited me firsthand. I walked the field and went to one of his private parties.”
Gardner has also made ballpark appearances at Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto and has been to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore on several occasions.
“I celebrated Babe’s 100th birthday there in the winter time (Feb. 6, 1995),” he said. “They invited me.”
A mechanic by trade, Gardner is 68 years old and never had much time to follow baseball in his youth.
“I always hard to work hard all my life,” he said. “I never went to ballgames and that. I still work 51/2 days a week.”
But when an invitation comes, he has no trouble getting off work.
“I just take it,” he said. “I’m pretty near 69 years old so I can take it. It’s been really interesting for both me and my wife, Cecile. My wife had never been out of the state of Ohio until I married her. Now she’s been all over the country.”
The couple will mark 50 years together in October and never knows where their next invitation will come from or where it will take them.
Gardner doesn’t have an agent and does no advertising or marketing. He’s his own salesman, which is no trouble at all when you look like the most popular figure in baseball history.
“We do it all ourselves, word of mouth,” he said.
Surprisingly, no one except his own children recognized the similarities until Gardner set foot in Cooperstown.
“They had a picture of Babe and put it on a clipboard years ago and said, dad, this is you. I didn’t pay any attention to it. Now I’ve got it laminated,” Gardner said proudly. “I’ve got numerous paper clippings from all over the country where I’ve made appearances.”
Of all the places he’s been, baseball’s birthplace is still his favorite because of the people. Gardner takes a vacation there each year for Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, and he’s usually on hand for the annual Hall of Fame Game, in which two big league teams square off at historic Doubleday Field.
Last year, he was a huge hit with Red Sox Nation that filled the tiny ballpark to see the defending World Champion Sox take on the Tigers. For that occasion, Gardner wore a bright crimson Red Sox jersey (see photo) with a dark blue cap.
At other times he’ll don a Yankee uniform, turning heads wherever he goes. The similarity is unmistakable and a genuine treat for Cooperstown visitors, who can’t get enough of the town’s rich baseball atmosphere.
“I’ve got so many friends up there,” Gardner said. “They take care of me.
They send me tickets and I go. I’ve got an apartment right there in Cooperstown.”
A person can’t help feeling that Ruth would have liked Gardner had they known each other, and would no doubt approve of his efforts to keep Babe’s memory alive. Aside from their physical similarities, they share a genuine love for people, baseball and life in general.
Having played Ruth for the past 15 years, Gardner has developed a kinship with the Yankee slugger that transcends time. Several years ago, he felt it only fitting to pay his respects at the Bambino’s final resting place in Valhalla, N.Y.
“We took off one time and I said I’m going go to find Babe and drink a beer with him,” Gardner said, smiling. “And I did. Now I can say I had a beer with the Babe.”
This year’s Hall of Fame induction activities are scheduled for the weekend of July 28-30. For more information go to baseballhalloffame.org.