Since the dawn of time, humankind has desired to test its mettle against the animal kingdom, from hunting lions to boxing kangaroos to wrestling drugged-out bears during basketball halftimes. But of all these battles between man and beast, never has there been one so tense, so unpredictable as the time a fat baseball player and a flightless bird went toe-to-toe over a plate of pasta.
During the spring of 1919, there wasn't a lot to do in Jacksonville, Florida. Neither NASCAR, EDM, nor spray-vomiting bath salts had been invented yet. The only two pastimes were visiting the new Jacksonville Zoo or watching the off-season baseball practice -- the only activity in the world more boring than watching actual baseball. But each option did come with some star attractions. On the baseball side, that was getting to see the Big Bam, Babe Ruth. On the zoo side, it was seeing Big Bird, Percy the Ostrich.
Percy the Ostrich was Jacksonville Zoo's most celebrated animal. Not as ostentatious as a rhino or a gorilla, but for a five-year-old zoo that started with one red deer and seventeen different species of mosquito (non-optional if you build something in Florida), Percy was quite the acquisition. The ostrich's star power lay in its stomachs -- all three of them. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce used Percy in the zoo's advertising, enticing crowds to come to see the "world's greatest eater." A boast Percy could easily back. Measuring up to nine feet and weighing on average 250 pounds, male ostriches can gulp down up to eight pounds of feed a day, swallowing everything in their path whole like the anaconda strapped to a Thanksgiving turkey looking monstrosities that they are.
And when I say everything, I mean it in the Gary Oldman-sense of everything. Ostriches will gulp down grit, stones, and other indigestibles to help grind food inside their stomach (gizzard) like an internal kitchen robot. These indestructible digestive powers of the ostrich have always drawn attention. In ancient times, legend had it that ostriches could easily digest iron, from horseshoes to rusty nails. The latter was definitively disproved in the 1930s when the London Zoo cut open a deceased ostrich and found it had suffered "death by perforation" from swallowing a four-inch nail. However, what didn't kill the ostrich were the handful of coins, metal comb, three handkerchiefs, three odd cotton gloves, and bicycle valve also found inside its belly.
But as is the case with every champion, it was only a matter of time before gluttons would come to compete for Percy's corpulent crown. The first challenge came from the co-owner of the New York Yankees, Colonel T.L. Huston. When the Colonel arrived for spring training and found some foreign fowl flaunting the title of best eater in America, he proposed a bout between Percy and the biggest eater in his dugout: Ping Bodie. Bodie was a five foot eight, 220 pound mammoth of a slugger who wielded a 52-ounce bat like a caveman wielding an oversized dinosaur bone. He also had a reputation for running up restaurant bills like the world's shittiest Tinder date. No wonder Col. Huston wanted someone else to pick up the tab for once. To sweeten the cooking pot, Bodie was allowed to pick the meal. The outfielder agreed, choosing spaghetti as his weapon of choice.
For Bodie to choose, spaghetti was less obvious than you might think. Born in an Italian immigrant family, Francesco Stephano Pezzolo was one of the first Italian-Americans to make it to the major leagues, blazing a trail for later sports legends like Joe DiMaggio. But since early 20th-century baseball audiences liked Italian immigrants about as much as Tony Soprano likes a sandwich without gabagool, Francesco Pezzolo always tried to downplay his roots. To appear more 'American,' he invented the surname Bodie (the name of a mining town his dad had worked in) and borrowed the nickname "Ping" from his cousin like a linguistic hand-me-down. But as much as Bodie liked to pretend he was as American as Jim Crow pie, he liked two things more: winning and being smug about winning. "I and the Liberty Bell are the only attractions in Philadelphia," he once said while being the star player for the A's. This may explain why, when faced with potentially losing to a bird and never hearing the end of it in the dugout, Bodie sought refuge in his mother's cooking. At least he could be reassured that he had more experience packing away pasta than some Australian fowl.
As expected, Ping's carb-bomb choice immediately ruffled some feathers. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce cried foul, fearing that Percy would have trouble digesting processed wheat. And this wasn't the only thing they were worried about. Out of fear that the event would get protested by early animal rights activists, the competition was kept on the down-low. Still, on the day of the event, the Jacksonville public hall was packed to the rafters with Floridians and out-of-town baseball players alike betting on the outcome of this saga of stomachs.
In theory, the smart money was still on Percy. Though surprisingly rare (or not very well recorded out of shame), professional eating competitions between animal and manimal do exist -- and they tend to be very one-sided. In recent history, there was the time that Nate's Hot Dogs had a bun eating contest between three competitive eaters and three elephants. The elephants handily (trunkily?) won by devouring 505 buns in six minutes to the humans' piddling 143. Then there was the most famous bout of all: a sausage eating match between legendary eating pro Takeru Kobayashi, the Sultan of Stuffing, the Imperator of Indigestion, and a 1,000 pound Kodiak bear. In the end, Kobayashi managed to eat 31 hot dogs in two minutes while the bear devoured 50 with plenty of room for more hot dogs. Or Kobayashi.
On a Thursday at 9 PM, the battle of the bellies was at hand. Sadly, a lot of the details surrounding the Percy vs. Ping contest are lost to time. We don't know how big the portions were, what kind of pasta sauce they used (if any) or what kind of eighties training montage Percy the Ostrich underwent to prepare. What we do know is who won. Out of the gate, Percy was pummeling Ping. By his third serving of pasta, a showboating Percy even "swallowed the manager's pocket watch and chain." A clear homage to his eating hero, the crocodile from Peter Pan. But by the fourth round, things started to get tense. While Bodie hadn't even broken a sweat, many onlookers noticed that Percy "had begun to swell visibly," the bird ballooning like an overstuffed pinata.
While the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce had worried about the qualities of the spaghetti, they should've been worried about the quantity. Ostriches may be insatiable eaters, but they're more like the endurance runners of the gastronomic world. By nature, a grazing and scavenging animal, the digestive process of an ostrich is both complicated and slow, taking up to 36 hours for food to travel from beak to cloaca. Furthermore, as a sort of portion control, the ostrich has a glandular stomach at the top of its neck that acts as a food valve, only releasing lumps of grub sporadically to give the gizzard time to mash up the previous load. This gives ostriches a digestive system specifically built for a slow and steady intake of nutrients, not six pounds of mama's homemade cooking in a single sitting.
It soon became obvious to everyone except Percy that his eyes were bigger than his stomach (which in the case of ostriches isn't saying all that much). By round six, the flightless bird was looking visibly unwell. Yet bowl after bowl, the ostrich continued eating. The audience's sympathy for poor Percy quickly reached a breaking point, one spectator yelling, "Do you want your bird killed?" Meanwhile, several women fled the venue, fearing they were about to witness Percy explode like a gastrolith grenade, pelting everyone with pasta, pebbles, and pocket watches. But the members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, who had all bet substantial amounts on their champion eater, refused to throw in the towel, responding: Not while he's on his feet!"
Then, during the eleventh round, the bird buckled. Unable to continue, Percy did what any distressed ostrich would: he buried his head in the plate of pasta, collapsing on the spot. The timekeeper "began the count" (by putting his ear to Percy's stomach, I guess) and, after reaching ten, disqualified the distressed Percy. On the other side of the table, Ping Bodie slurped down his final strings with great confidence and then took a victory lap. And so ended the epic tale of the battle between Ping Bodie and Percy the Ostrich, where a human eating human food in a human-centric competition somehow was smug in victory over a large bird.
Reports of what happened after the eating contest take a turn for the apocryphal, in as much as a spaghetti battle between a baseball star and an ostrich can become even more unbelievable. Some legends claim that Percy collapsed "never to rise again," implying that the bird had eatenitself into an early grave. Others claim that he merely passed out, sliding into a brief food coma before recovering to binge another day. Whatever the fate of Percy, he should forever be remembered as a brave contender, and, if he indeed died a martyr, the patron saint of zoo animals who get shit thrown at them by humans just to see if they'd eat it.
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