Yankees Outfielder vs. Ostrich

edited July 6 in The Pit
It's silly season here on SJ and this is all I could find. Yes it's Yankee lore, but even a Red Sox fan will enjoy this one. And it turns out Bodie later played for the Sawx.


About that time a Yankees outfielder challenged an ostrich to a spaghetti-eating contest

By Jeff Pearlman

I am bored and,​ perhaps, you are​ bored,​ too.

On the one​ hand,​ the​ sporting world​​ is overflowing with pizzazz and color and gossip aplenty. LeBron is a Laker, Yankees-Red Sox is enthralling, some guys are kicking balls into nets, then sliding across the grass.

Again—it’s a pretty riveting span.

And yet, everything in sports also feels so … plastic and choreographed. NBA free agency is now this thing, where we hang upon the Tweeted words of uber-wealthy 25-year-olds preparing to tell us which glorified pajamas they’ll wear for the next half-decade. Why, just the other day I turned to my son and said, “Holy cow—Trevor Ariza is about to …” before stopping myself and splashing my cheeks with icy water.

See, long before all this craziness, there was a time when games were games and athletes were athletes and hype wasn’t merely manufactured, but earned. It was a time when we actually read articles about sporting events. A time when news felt important and large and powerful.

A time when a Yankees outfielder challenged an ostrich to a spaghetti-eating contest.

You have read that last sentence correctly.

The year was 1919, and New York’s spring training roster included a statistically nondescript journeyman named Francesco Stephano Pezzolo. Only, back in the day—when Italian ballplayers were rare and monikers arrived by the dozen—he went by Ping Bodie (“Ping” for the sound made when ball met his 52-ounce bat; “Bodie” for Bodie, Calif., his former hometown).

Bodie made his Major League debut with the White Sox in 1911, then was shipped from Chicago to the Philadelphia Athletics for a single season in 1917. He never hit more than eight home runs, never batted higher than .291. But he was steady, he was dependable and, after being traded to the Yankees for first baseman George Burns in 1918, he was the life of every party.

Bodie was once responsible for stuffing a team photographer’s hotel room with live ducks. He was a loud laugher and an outstanding joke teller. He drank beer, then more and more beer and more beer. Which was perfect, because he roomed on the road with Babe Ruth (When asked what that was like, Bodie famously cracked, “It was like rooming with a suitcase.”).

Bodie was described by a writer named Wood Ballard as “anthropoid-like with broad stooping shoulders and long dangling arms which seemed to hang even lower when he trotted to and from his outfield position.” In one of the all-time legendary journalism quips, the scribe Bugs Baer explained yet another Bodie bungled stolen base attempt thusly: “There was larceny in his heart but his feet were honest.”

Bodie was neither a great hitter nor outfielder. But he was up for anything.

Literally anything.

That’s why, on April 3, 1919, dozens of spectators (and most of the Yankee roster) filed into the South Side Pavilion in Jacksonville, Florida, where—decades before Chuck Wepner boxed a bear and Mr. T wrestled Roddy Piper—Ping Bodie would engage in a spaghetti eating contest against an ostrich.

(A quick aside. I’ve been a sports writer for 24 years, and that was a preposterously fun thing to write. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll do it one more time. On April 3, 1919, Ping Bodie would engage in a spaghetti eating contest against an ostrich. Thank you.)

Now, to be clear, this was no ordinary Struthio. The enlisted ostrich was named Percy, and he was hyped by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce as “the world’s greatest eater.” At the time, the Yankees held spring training at the South Side Ball Park, which was adjacent to an ostrich farm (and Percy’s home) on the south side of the St. John’s River. The ballplayers almost certainly dreaded the smell of ostrich excrement billowing in the damp Florida heat. Percy, we can guess, resented such emotions.

According to W.O. McGeehan’s piece in the San Francisco Chronicle: “(On the night of the contest), The ostrich was led in by Wilbert Robinson … and the members of the Chamber of Commerce gave him a rousing reception. Bodie scowled defiantly at his antagonist, while the ostrich sharpened his beak on the canvas and playfully poked his second in his overhanging abdomen.”

Although details are somewhat sketchy, the face-off was slated for 12 rounds, with plates of spaghetti being placed before each combatant, then one or two minutes allowed for eating. McGeehan was one of the finest journalists of his time, and he later served as editor of the New York Herald Tribune. His career, though, surely peaked with the marvelous round-by-round breakdown of Ping v. Percy.

For example …

Round 1—Both platters were cleaned as the bell rang. Bodie was a trifle disconcerted by the sprig of spaghetti that eluded his fork, but he grasped it in his hands and flung the fork out of the ring.

Round 3—The ostrich came back strong in this round and swallowed his second’s watch and that’s with the third platter. But the smile of confidence remained upon Bodie’s face. Members of the Yankee team shouted: “Stay with him, Ping!” Ping cast a defiant glance at the ostrich as he went to his corner.

Round 7—Even strong me began to edge back from the ring. They began to fear that in a few more rounds Percy would explode.


McGeehan died 85 years ago. Were he still walking the earth, I am quite certain he would note the similarities between a fading Percy the Ostrich and Thomas Hearns, clumsily stumbling around the ring near the conclusion of his epic 1985 clash with Marvin Hagler. Heading into the ninth round, fans of the ostrich began to scream for Robinson to throw in the towel. Heading into the 10th, those pleas grew louder. Percy, McGeehan wrote, “was dying on his feet.”

Then, the 11th. Bodie rose from his corner and strutted confidently toward his pasta. He surely knew Percy was fading. The ostrich’s beak hung low. He walked at a slowed pace. “Percy’s eyes were bloodshot and his sides were heaving as he toed his platter,” McGeehan described. “He was a badly beaten ostrich.”

Moments later, Percy crumbled to his knees. Bodie slurped up every last spaghetti piece, then glared, Mike Tyson-like, toward the fallen bird.

The referee (identified as “Sheriff Donahue”) counted loudly to 10.

Bodie lifted his arms into the air.

Ostriches lack arms, therefore Percy could not reciprocate.

It also did not help that he was dead.

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