When the slugging New York Yankee outfielder Ping Bodie sat down in front of his bowl of spaghetti, there was little doubt that he was the underdog in this contest. After all, his opponent was billed as the “world’s greatest eater” and stood seven feet tall. It was supposed to be a mismatch. That is, until the two started eating. By the end of the contest, as Bodie polished off his eleventh bowl of pasta, his opponent laid on the floor in defeat. Ping Bodie had done it, he had vanquished the indomitable Percy. Percy the ostrich. And the spaghetti eating contest in which he did it forever lives in baseball lore.
With baseball’s spring training upon us, here’s the story of the time a Yankee beat an ostrich in a spaghetti-eating contest.
Born in San Fransisco to an Italian American immigrant family, Ping Bodie’s real name was actually Francesco Stephano Pezzolo. As a kid, he was given the nickname ”Ping” because that was the sound his bat made hitting a ball. As for his surname “Bodie,” Ping’s brother once explained that there weren't a lot of Italian ball players back then. So, in order to sound less “ethnic,” Ping took the name of a mining town that his father once worked in - Bodie, California. Beginning his professional baseball career with the San Francisco Seals in 1905, Bodie made stops in Chicago and Philadelphia before being traded to the New York Yankees in 1918. Besides his culinary face-off with a bird, Bodie’s major claim to fame was that he was once Babe Ruth’s roommate. Once asked what it was like to room with the notoriously social Ruth, Bodie deadpanned that he didn’t room with him, but rather, “I room with his suitcase.”
Percy’s life was just as glamorous. Billed "the world’s greatest eater” by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Percy was the most famous ostrich in the Florida panhandle. With the Yankees spring training home just across from the Jacksonville Zoo where Percy lived, players and baseball writers alike could often be found viewing the animals in between practices. One day, while watching Percy eat, writer W.O. McGeehan got the idea that a Yankee should challenge the ostrich to a eating contest. It would be a great story, plus fantastic marketing for both the ball club and the zoo. He proposed it to New York Yankee co-owner Colonel T.L. Huston, who told McGeehan that the bird had no chance against Ping Bodie, who routinely ran up huge food bills. The zoo disputed this notion and the competition was on.
On April 3rd (one account says April 5th), 1919, a raucous crowd greeted the competitors as they walked to the stage. Despite the match not being advertised due to the fear of rousing animal activists, the audience was substantial. Many locals and members of the Chamber of Commerce thought that Bodie didn’t stand a chance against their feathery favorite, even wagering heavily on the bird. The sportswriters who had seen Bodie’s penchant for eating knew otherwise. Just after 9 PM, two heaping bowls of spaghetti were placed in front of the outfielder and the ostrich. Then,the bell rung.
Bodie and Percy were neck and neck through the first round, but by the second round it was clear Percy was struggling. In the third round, Percy perked up, supposedly eating the timekeeper’s pocket watch as a show of confidence. In round seven, with Bodie hardly tiring and chugging along. Round nine featured people yelling at the stage to let the ostrich quit, including a spectator saying, “Do you want your bird killed?” Despite Percy's obvious discomfort, he kept eating, his animal instincts kicking in. Finally, in round eleven with Bodie showing very little signs of slowing down, Percy hesitantly approached his latest bowl of spaghetti with bloodshot eyes. Then, he promptly fell to his knees and, in a dramatic flourish, buried his head in the spaghetti. The referee counted to ten and declared Bodie the winner, with the count of 11 bowls of spaghetti to ten.
Bodie’s baseball career would only last a few seasons after that fateful day. He eventually became an electrician on movie sets where he lived out the remainder of his life in sunny Hollywood. As for Percy, witnesses accounts say he “never rose again,” and died at the plate. Although whether or not Percy passed away or simply passed out is a fact that is forever lost to history.