Spring training is a time for players to prepare for the season, and work on adding new dimensions to their games. However back in 1919, there was time for other, far weirder, things to happen.
Ping Bodie was a five-year major league veteran when the Yankees acquired him ahead of the 1918 season. He had first broken in with the White Sox in 1911 and became a regular for them the next couple seasons.
Bodie, who was known for being confident in his own abilities, was on the bench early in the 1911 season. Not happy with that situation, he went to White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey and told him “You want some hitting, put me in the lineup.” Comiskey made it happen, and Bodie went on to put up three solid seasons in Chicago.
After a down season in 1914 which saw his relationship with manager Jimmy Callahan deteriorate, Bodie was sold to a Pacific Coast League team in January 1915. He went on to hit a combined 39 home runs over the next two years and was picked up by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1917. After a good season in Philadelphia, the Yankees acquired him in a trade in March 1918.
With the Yankees, Bodie gained the reputation as being a likable loudmouth. In spring training 1918, he and two teammates played a prank on a photographer by putting two live ducks in his hotel room.
The following year, the Yankees’ spring training was held in Jacksonville, Florida, right near the Jacksonville Zoo. Between practices and workouts, Yankees’ players, coaches, and media would often go over and check out the animals. Among the animals at the zoo was Percy the Ostrich.
Percy was semi-famous in the Jacksonville area, and was billed by the local chamber of commerce as the “world’s greatest eater.” While watching Percy eat, writer W.O. McGeehan came up with the idea of a Yankee challenging the ostrich to an eating contest. Yankees owner Colonel T.L. Huston suggested Bodie, who was known for racking up huge food bills. Sensing a chance to drum up some publicity for the team and the zoo, the Yankees and Bodie offered up a challenge, which was accepted.
On April 3rd, the South Side Pavilion was filled to the brim for the contest between Bodie and Percy. That was despite the contest not really being widely advertised due to fear of the ire it would draw from animal activists. Bodie was allowed to choose the meal for the contest, and he went with spaghetti, his favorite food.
Early on, the two matched each other plate for plate. In the third round (because yes, obviously this was set up like a boxing match), Percy swallowed his handler’s watch and chain along with the plate of spaghetti.
Around the fourth round, Percy began to show signs of slowing down. He began bloating around this time, but members of the chamber of commerce, which had bet heavily on their ostrich, refused to throw in the towel at any point. People began leaving as they started to feel sorry for the bird.
After 10 rounds, the competitors began their 11th plate. Bodie appeared fine, while the ostrich sides were swelling and his eyes bloodshot. As Bodie continued on eating, Percy fell to his knees with his head buried in his plate of spaghetti. The referee began counting to 10, because again: boxing match. Percy could not answer the count, and Bodie was declared the winner. After the contest ended, Bodie was reported to say “Spaghetti makes you hungry. Can someone cook me the ostrich?”
There are conflicting sources on whether Percy merely passed out or actually died at the conclusion of the contest. It’s not exactly easy to find information about an ostrich from 100 years ago. I’m no veterinarian, but I can’t imagine things would have been pleasant for Percy had he lived.
As for Bodie, he went on to have his best year with the Yankees in 1919. He was a regular fixture in the lineup for the next two seasons, and roomed with Babe Ruth when he joined the team.
Bodie’s production and playing time dropped drastically in 1921. He was released in August, missing out on the Yankees’ trip to the World Series. Despite playing a further seven seasons in minors, he never made it back to the majors. Still probably a better ending to the story than Percy’s.