With his broad face, bulbous nose and twinkling eyes, longtime tow-truck driver Willis “Buster” Gardner at Dunlap’s Garage in Carlisle Township has won another look-alike contest as slugger Babe Ruth — this time at a pricey New York steakhouse.
Gardner, of Oberlin, beat out three other competitors at Gallagher’s steakhouse on Monday night to emerge as the top Bambino.
He promptly gave away his prizes — Broadway theater tickets — to the three other competitors.
An overnight stay and a great dinner — including a $44.95 filet mignon — was reward enough, he said.
“I love to please people,” Gardner said.
A crowd turned out to see the contest at Gallagher’s, which was celebrating its 85th birthday, according to general manager Jonathan Young.
If anyone wanted to compare Gardner to the real thing, they just had to look at the three photos of Babe Ruth on the wall, Young said.
Gardner said his fascination with Ruth began in middle age, when his daughters noticed the resemblance.
He ordered a custom uniform with Yankee pinstripes after appearing as an extra in “The Babe Ruth Story,” filmed in 1991 in Cleveland.
He went to Cooperstown that year, and someone shouted “The Babe is back!”
Gardner said the most touching moment was when he met Ruth’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tositti, at Cooperstown in 1993.
Tositti, who was born after her grandfather’s death, gave Gardner a hug and kiss. Then she wrote on the photo taken of them together that, “It was the thrill of my life to meet my grandfather who I never met.”
Tositti told Sports Illustrated, “If my mother had been there, you’d have to peel her off the sidewalk.”
Gardner said his most lucrative stretch of appearances was from 1998 to 2003, when he appeared at Shea Stadium five years in a row at the invitation of former Mets owner Nelson Doubleday.
“He paid me big, and he treated me like a king,” he said.
Gardner has made hundreds of appearances as Ruth and has posed for photos with the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Billy Crystal and George Steinbrenner.
He said he is careful he doesn’t have more than a beer or two while portraying Ruth because he is protective of his image.
“He was just an outstanding guy,” said Gardner of Ruth, who died of cancer in 1948 at the age of 53.
Oddly enough, that’s how old Gardner was when he began portraying Ruth.
Although Ruth had a reputation as a womanizer, Gardner won’t go anywhere without his wife of nearly 56 years, Cecile. He turned down trips to California when sponsors declined to pay her way.
Cecile joked that she had better be watchful — the ladies are always “hugging and kissing” her husband when he portrays the Babe.
“I’m in the background,” she said with a laugh.
Thankfully, Gardner’s bosses don’t mind when he gets a chance to travel far and wide to portray Ruth.
“It’s a chance to go somewhere else and meet other interesting people — it’s awesome,” he said.
Gardner, 75, is one of the original employees of the garage’s founder, Galen Lewis Dunlap Sr., and has been towing at Dunlap’s for 42 years.
“Everyone calls me ‘The Babe’ all of the time on the road,” Gardner said.
After returning from New York, Gardner towed a truck from Elkins, W.V., back to Huron on Wednesday, he said.
“I still work every day,” he said. “I worked 13 hours yesterday and six today.”
Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.