When a NY Yankee Challenged An Ostrich To A Spaghetti Eating Contest.
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
Francesco Stephano Pizzolo was born on the 8th of October, 1887 to an Italian-American immigrant family on the West Coast of America in San Francisco. Little Francesco grew up in a time where being of Italian descent unfortunately led to certain forms of discrimination and mockery. The classic Italian stereotypes would get thrown at him around town and at school, which would eventually lead to him adopting the nickname Ping Bodie.
There are many stories as to how he took this name in particular, but Francesco himself said the nickname Ping came from a family friend who had been saddled with it, didn’t like it and so pawned it off onto the young Francesco. Many of his fans in later life like to say he got the name Ping because that's the sound the ball made when he struck it with his enormous 52 ounce baseball bat, which is nearly double the weight of today's bats.
Ping was one of the first Italian Americans to make it to Major League baseball and to further hide his ethnicity he chose the surname Bodie. It was the name of an old west mining town his father and uncle had lived in for a while, known for its saloons, cowboys and gunfights. He felt it added an authentic American charm to his name that would set him in good stead for his upcoming career in baseball.
Ping was a heavy hitter right from the get go. His career began in 1908 playing in the West Coast California league before joining the San Francisco Seals in 1909. Many years later the world famous Joe DiMaggio would get his start at this very same team playing shortstop. It’s said that Bodie himself was the inspiration behind many future Italian American ball players including all three of the DiMaggio brothers.
Two years later he was transferred to the Chicago White Sox after their owner Charles Comiskey complained that the Sox weren’t hitting well enough. Well this was what Ping did best. On his first day Ping walked into the owners office and told him “If you want some good hitting, put me in the lineup.”
Charles Comiskey was impressed and started him in the very next match. Bodie thankfully lived up to his own hype and soon earned himself the nickname “Fence-Buster” for his ability to hit the ball hard over great distances.
Something worth knowing about Ping was that, due to a variety of factors in his life, he had grown up to be a brash and confident young man. He said exactly what he thought and didn’t hold back, sometimes to his own detriment. It was this very character trait that soon led to him clashing with the White Sox manager and he was swiftly traded back to the Seals before moving on to Philadelphia. Once there, and finding himself disappointed in the quality of his new teammates and their playing style, he once told the press that his new team, the A’s, were so bad that the only two attractions worth seeing in Philadelphia were the Liberty Bell, and Ping Bodie.
His arrogance rubbed some people up the wrong way but it also meant that he had an incredible self-confidence which translated into his playing style. He was doing his thing and cracking the ball out of the stadium with such regularity that soon his big break came when he was traded to the New York Yankees.
Bodie was a big personality and loved being the center of attention, but even so he wasn’t the biggest personality on his new team. When selecting roommates for tour accommodation, management made sure to pair him up with the only man with a bigger personality than him, the world famous slugger, Babe Ruth.
Babe Ruth was well known as a party animal and would hit the town whenever the opportunity arose. So much so, in fact, that when asked what it was like sharing a room with the most famous star in the game, Bodie simply replied “I share a room with Babe Ruth’s suitcase, not Babe Ruth.”
Now, these days, top level athletes and sportsmen make a ridiculous amount of money, and Major League Baseball is no exception. However, that was not always the case, as around the time that Bodie was active, ball players would often have to take up other jobs once the season had finished to keep their lifestyles afloat. One of the easiest ways to make a quick buck leveraging their fame was for sportsmen to take part in special contests or challenges, which often led to some truly bizarre stories.
One of these stories involved Ping Bodie, an ostrich and a veritable mountain of spaghetti.
In the year 1919 Percy the ostrich was one of the most famous birds in Jacksonville, Florida. He had been given the title of the World’s Greatest Eater by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce in what was likely a way to advertise the city zoo. The zoo itself was still quite new, having been built just 5 years earlier in 1914. It just so happened that Jacksonville was also the city in which the New York Yankees had been having Spring Training since 1898. Crowds of people would gather to greet the ball players each time they arrived in the city and would watch with glee as some of the worlds best players went through their training exercises right there in front of them.
The Co-owner of the Yankees at this time was Colonel Tillinghast Huston, a veteran of both the Spanish-American war as well as the First World War. Upon arriving in Jacksonville with the team he began to hear rumours around the city, touting their famous ostrich and its prodigious talent for eating. That he heard these rumours so quickly upon arrival was maybe no surprise as the Yankees Spring Training ground was right across the street from the local Jacksonville zoo. Spotting an opportunity to make some money and garner some publicity for the team, he decided he would offer the town a challenger to Percy and make a contest of it. After some back and forth negotiations, the zoo agreed to their terms and they gave Colonel Huston the green light.
Now all the Colonel needed was a challenger and he knew just who he wanted. Ping Bodie was known for many things, but one of his attributes, well known to friends and family, was that he loved food, and he loved to eat a lot of it. Huston himself would often get furious at Bodie after he would ring up enormous food bills on the clubs tab. It seemed like the perfect matchup, as long as he could get the hitter to agree. But, as we already know, Ping Bodie loved being the center of attention and this was just one more way to make that happen. After a brief chat with Colonel Huston, he happily agreed to the match.
Word quickly spread about the contest and despite some backlash from local animal enthusiasts, the town was abuzz with excitement over the upcoming showdown between man and bird. When the day finally came for the matchup, Huston and Bodie arrived at the local Jacksonville townhall to find it packed to the rafters with eager spectators. Bodie waved and smiled to the gathered masses as he was presented to the crowd alongside the reigning champion Percy the ostrich.
Being that Bodie was the challenger he was allowed to choose the food they would both consume in the contest. Owing to his heritage, it’s maybe no surprise at all that Ping Bodie chose spaghetti. This, however, was not a popular choice among the assembled members of the local chamber of commerce who had all placed rather hefty bets on Percy being victorious.
The spaghetti was prepared in a giant pot and, once cooked, was spooned into two separate tin bowls. A bowl was placed in front of Bodie and he was told to wait until the second bowl had been placed in front of Percy. Only once Percy had started pecking at his bowl was Bodie allowed to start on his. The ostrich eyed the bowl curiously as it was placed in front of him but it took just a few short seconds before he attacked it with gusto. Bodie dove into his own bowl and the contest was under way.
The first bowl went down in no time and a second bowl was hastily placed in front of each of them. While it was not a contest of speed but rather one of longevity, the crowd had whipped themselves into a frenzy, cheers alternately ringing out for both Bodie and the reigning champion ostrich. As quickly as the first bowl went down, so did the second and by the end of the third bowl both man and ostrich were neck and neck.
In a twist of fate that may amount to pure urban legend it is said that Percy gobbled down his third bowl of spaghetti with such enthusiasm that he accidentally swallowed Colonel Hustons pocket watch and chain while he had been keeping time next to the table. Knowing how ostriches like to eat shiny objects, this maybe isn’t too far of a stretch.
By the time the fourth bowl had been devoured onlookers began to notice Percy's sides visibly beginning to swell. On came bowl five and then bowl six, at which point many of the female spectators began to feel ill and leave the hall, fearing what would happen to poor Percy if he kept on like he was. Bowl seven came and went and there was no sign of Bodie slowing down. He was loving the roar of the crowd and with each chant of his name he shoveled yet another forkful of spaghetti into his now gaping mouth. Percy on the other hand had begun to slow down and by bowl eight it was clear who was going to win this contest. But Percy seemingly wasn’t going to let his crown be taken from him that easily and he pushed on, pecking at the bowl with all the strength he had left.
By bowl ten the tension in the room was peaking and a spectator shouted at the zoo handlers “Do you want your bird to be killed?” a strange mix of fear and elation coursed its way through all assembled inside. Finally, as Percy started on his eleventh bowl of spaghetti he could take it no more, he lifted his head and looked around at the worried faces in front of him. He stopped eating, staggered a few steps to the side and collapsed into a food coma on the floor behind the table. Bodie looked down at the ostrich, back up at the crowd and with a flourish made sure to finish every last morsel in his by now eleventh bowl of spaghetti. When he was done, he sat back in his chair, let out a loud belch and rubbed his belly with satisfaction. Then he stood, arms raised, as the new reigning champion Worlds Greatest Eater.
Just two years later Bodie would play his last game for the New York Yankes in the winter of 1921. He would go on to play several more seasons at a variety of lower league teams before finally ending up back where he started at the San Francisco Seals.
He died in 1961 still talking about the good old days and regaling friends and family alike with tales of his baseball prowess. But his favourite story to tell, if you had a few minutes to spare, was about the day he ate 11 bowls of spaghetti and beat an ostrich in an eating competition.
Until next time. Bon Appetit.