By Michael LeCompte
Eating contests have probably been around for as long as food itself and one of the strangest took place in 1919 and pitted a human against an ostrich to see who could eat the most spaghetti.
Francesco Stephano Pezzolo (1887-1961) was an Italian-American baseball player from California. He dominated the Pacific Coast League, belting 30 home runs in 1910 for the San Francisco Seals. That many home runs was unheard of in the dead ball era and earned Pezzolo a contract with the White Sox.
When his baseball career took off Francesco began going by Frank Bodie, for the California town where he grew up and because it sounded less-ethnic. A career .275 hitter in the major leagues, Bodie hit the ball hard and earned the nickname “Ping” supposedly for the sound the ball made when it came off his bat.
Although he changed his name to sound less-ethnic Bodie could never quite subdue his fiery Italian personality, openly clashing with management while with the White Sox. After being traded to Philadelphia he once famously quipped that the only attractions in Philly were “the Liberty Bell and Ping Bodie.”
From 1919-1921 Bodie played for the Yankees and it was during spring training in 1919 that the 5’8” 190 pound outfielder would achieve the status of “World’s Greatest Eater.”
The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce decided to hold an eating contest pitting an animal against a human to promote tourism on April 3, 1919. The contest was held in a tent without much advertising and with little fanfare to reduce the possibility of protests by animal rights groups.
As a nod to Bodie’s Italian heritage spaghetti was chosen for the contest. Ping the baseball player and Percy the ostrich matched each other through the first three plates of noodles, however, Percy’s sides began to swell visibly after the fourth plate, causing some to leave the spectacle rather than see what they feared would be a grisly conclusion.
The contestants kept eating until the eleventh plate. Ping finished his eleventh plate, but Percy collapsed without finishing his.
According to legend Percy the ostrich never regained consciousness.
After leaving the Yankees in 1921 Bodie bounced around the minors for 7 seasons before retiring to a career as an electrician and bit-actor in Hollywood.
Whether Percy really ate himself to death that day or simply returned heavier to the Jacksonville zoo eating contests have endured as spectacle and now “sport.”