Ruth impersonator was Cooperstown fixture

ContributedWillis Gardner, shown here dressed up as Babe Ruth, passed away at the age of 83 on Aug. 10. Gardner, who was better known as Buster the Babe, was a fixture at the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s annual Induction Ceremony.

When the National Baseball Hall of Fame holds its 2021 Induction Ceremony on Sept. 8, a familiar face won’t be there for the first time in almost 30 years.

It was a face that looked remarkably similar to that of the Great Bambino himself.

Noted Babe Ruth impersonator Willis Gardner, or Buster the Babe as he was better known in baseball circles, passed away Aug. 10 at the age of 83. The Oberlin, Ohio native was a popular figure in Cooperstown at the annual Hall of Fame festivities. For 28 years, Gardner would dress up as the legendary Yankees slugger and interact with fans of all ages.

According to Gardner’s son, George, his father’s role in bringing the Babe back to life began sometime in the early 1990s when one of his sisters was looking through a copy of a TV Guide and saw an old photo of Babe Ruth. She was immediately struck by how much her father looked like the legendary ballplayer.

As luck would have it, Gardner wound up as an extra in the 1992 film “The Babe”, a biographical picture starring John Goodman as Ruth. It was during filming when more people began to take note of the similarities between Gardner and Ruth. Gardner eventually became associated with Curtis Management, a group that held the likeness rights for Ruth. From there, the rest was history.

While Gardner never quit his day job — he was a diesel mechanic and heavy-duty tow truck operator for 45 years — he would spend the next three decades making appearances as the Great Bambino in Cooperstown and beyond.

Gardner would make frequent appearances at Babe Ruth League youth baseball games, sometimes traveling as far as Mississippi. In Vermilion, Ohio, Gardner served as the grand marshal of the parade commemorating the Woollybear Festival, the largest one-day festival in the state of Ohio.

“He would always go there with all the news personalities from the news station and be in the parade and sign autographs and sit up on the stage with all of them,” George Gardner said. “He enjoyed doing that, just making appearances as Babe Ruth.”

In Cooperstown, Buster the Babe became such a recognizable figure that he eventually attained celebrity status, allowing family members the chance to visit Cooperstown in style.

“He took most of my nephews to Cooperstown with him,” the younger Gardner said. “It was like they were celebrities; they got to ride in the limousine, got to go to the movies. The kids always got to hang out and be with the celebrities.”

Gardner got the chance to meet his share of celebrities over the years, including actor and noted Yankees fan Billy Crystal, former New York Mets great Mike Piazza, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

One of Buster the Babe’s most special encounters occurred with Linda Tosetti, the granddaughter of the great man himself.

“One year he was walking down one side of the street and [Linda] was on the other and she turned and saw him and she screamed and came running over,” Gardner said. “He put her arm around her and hugged him and she said, ‘You’re the grandfather I didn’t get to meet.’”

Gardner said his father got to share memories like that with his wife Cecile. They would have celebrated 65 years of marriage this October.

In the days following his father’s passing, Gardner said his mother relived many of those moments, including one memorable encounter at the Hall of Fame that took place in a room dedicated to Ruth.

“They’d just redone Babe Ruth’s room at the Hall of Fame,” Gardner said. “They were with Linda… and they went through the back door of the Hall of Fame and they snuck in the back way into his room. There was a guy standing there looking at all the Babe Ruth stuff and my dad walked in. I don’t know if he was in his uniform or if he was just in his plain clothes. The guy looked at him in shock and he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And my dad said, ‘Well, I just came down to see how they redid my room.’”

It was moments like that that Gardner said were the most enjoyable for his father during his time as Buster the Babe, the kind of moments that will be missed by all those who make the trip to Cooperstown.

“All the time he was proud of what he did,” Gardner said of his father.

Nick Richardson, staff writer, can be reached at nrichardson@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7209.

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