History

Baseball’s ‘Eating Champion’ Story is a Little Hard to Swallow, But…

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Frank “Ping” Bodie

By Ken Zurski

Frank “Ping” Bodie, an Italian-American major league baseball player, once said that he could out eat anyone especially when it came to his favorite dish: pasta. So on April 3 1919, in Florida during a spring training break, Bodie proved it by competing in a head-to-head, no holds barred, eating contest against an unlikely opponent, an ostrich!

The whole thing sounds absolutely ridiculous and whether it actually happened as reported is doubtful, but it sure makes for an interesting story.

As a ballplayer and an outfielder, Bodie was a serviceable player, but a bit of an instigator. He was always up for a good argument and couldn’t help talking up his own worth.  ”I could whale the old apple and smack the old onion,” he said about his batting prowess. While playing for a lowly Philadelphia A’s ball club, Bodie claimed there were only two things in the city worth seeing: himself, of course, and the Liberty Bell.

Despite being a self-professed braggart, the player’s loved Bodie’s positive attitude. But his expressive candor clashed with  managers and he was traded to several teams before ending up with the New York Yankees where his road mate was the irrepressible Babe Ruth. When a reporter asked Bodie what it was like to room with baseball’s larger-than-life boozer, Bodie had the perfect answer. “I room with his suitcase,” he said.

Bodie was born Francesco Stephano (anglicized to Frank Stephen) Pezzello, but most people knew him by his more baseball player sounding nickname, Ping. He claimed “Ping” was from a cousin although many wished to believe it was after the sound of the ball hitting his bat.  Bodie was the name of a bustling California silver mining town that his father and uncle lived for a time.

Bodie’s reputation as a big-time eater must have preceded him.

While in Jacksonville, Florida for spring training, the co-owner of the Yankees, Col. T.L “Cap” Huston, heard about an ostrich at the local zoo named Percy who had an insatiable appetite. Huston told Bodie about Percy and the challenge was on. From that point on the accounts of the contest are so wildly embellished that the truth is muddled.

But who was questioning?

Fearing backlash from animal lovers (even those who loved ostrich’s, it seemed), the match was held at a secret location. Bodie reportedly won the contest, but only after Percy, who barely finished an eleventh plate, staggered off and died. Ostrich’s eat a lot, but Percy’s untimely demise was attributed to inadvertently swallowing the timekeeper’s watch. He expired with “sides swelled and bloodshot eyes.” one writer related.

For anyone who believed that, the rest of the story was easy to digest. Bodie finished a twelfth plate of pasta and claimed the self-appointed title of “spaghetti eating champion of the world.”.

The next day, Bodie was in the newspaper for serving up a double play ball in the eighth inning and helping rival Brooklyn Dodgers secure a “slaughter” of the Yankees, 11-2.

There was no mention of the eating contest or the supposed dead bird.

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The Literally, Literary Story Behind the ‘Ubiquitous’ Starling

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By Ken Zurski

In 1890, a man named Eugene Scheiffelin, a member of the American Acclimation Society, a group designed to exchange plants and animals from another part of the world to the United States, imported about 40 starlings from Europe to New York City.

While Scheiffelin’s reasoning was scientific, it was also borderline fanatic. He loved the writings of William Shakespeare. In fact, he loved Shakespeare so much that he planned to transplant all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to America. Starlings were native to Europe, Asia, and Africa and had not yet been introduced to North America. “I’ll have a Starling [that] shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer;” Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV.

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Schefflein released about 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park and the following year released 40 more. He really had no way of knowing what effect the birds would have on the ecosystem, good or bad.

Or did he?

About thirty years earlier a man from Brooklyn named Nicolas Pike imported a group of house sparrows from England with good intentions it seemed. Soon, the birds multiplied and spread throughout North America. At first their presence was helpful. They ate caterpillars of certain moths which frequently threatened city shade trees. But their numbers became unbearably large. They were, however, considered friendly birds.

The starlings, because of their aggressive and destructive nature, would be much worse.

Like the sparrow, within a decade at least, tens of millions of starlings plagued the countryside. Today in the Book of North American Birds, the European Starling (whose name still playfully carries its immigration status) is found in nearly all of inhabitable North America and year round, unlike the common robin, which is seasonal in many parts of the country.

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“The starling is ubiquitous,” The New York Times wrote in 1990, the 100th anniversary of the starling in America, “with its purple and green iridescent plumage and its rasping, insistent call. It has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and noxious birds on our continent.”

Costly because it eats – no, hordes – seeds and fruits.  Oftentimes this is done in packs of thousands that can devour whole fields in a single day.

Noxious because its droppings are linked to numerous diseases not only to animals but humans too.

Of course starlings eat insects, lots of insects, perhaps more than any other bird species in the U.S. But that doesn’t offset their flair for destruction and overall annoyance to farmers, gardeners and city dwellers.

“Starlings,” wrote an ornithologist, “do nothing in moderation.”

That would include depositing – or the aforementioned “dropping” – of their waste. Since they eat so much, they go and go and go (as in the amount of excrement discharged).  And because they roost in large numbers and in well populated areas, they usually “go” in places – and on things – we least want them too.

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Schefflein died in 1906 and for a time enjoyed the pleasures of seeing Starlings in and around New York City’s Central Park, but only Central Park.  This, however, meant that his plan to migrate the birds throughout the country was failing. Then in 1896, a nesting of starlings was discovered in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History, which was directly across the street from Central Park. Then in 1900, a letter to the editor of The New York Times asked, “Can you inform me what sort of bird it is which frequents this neighborhood?”

The Starlings were on the loose.

Shakespeare would have been proud, Schefflein must have thought at the time.

He had no idea.

Today, there are roughly 200 million starlings in North America.

Check your car’s windshield. You’ll see.

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The Weeks Following July 4, 1776 Were Difficult Ones For America

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By Ken Zurski

On July 8 1776, just days after the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, a copy was sent to General George Washington who was preparing for battle in New York City. Washington was anxiously awaiting word from the assembly in Philadelphia. He knew how important the declaration would be to his troops.

That’s because up to that point the New York contingent of the Continental Army, who had been together for nearly a full year, hadn’t fired a single shot yet. They were frustrated, antsy and for the most part continually drunk. The declaration would help boost morale, Washington thought.

Already, talk of such a declaration had been stirring up emotions within the ranks.

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In May of that year, in words later shaped by Thomas Jefferson, Virginian George Mason drew up a sentence about being “born equally” with “inherent natural rights.” And on June 7, Virginian Richard Henry Lee, introduced a congressional resolution declaring that the United Colonies “ought to be free and independent states.” Even Washington , in the spring of 1776, crafted a statement that supported the idea of independence as an incentive to fight. “My countrymen, I know, from their form of government and steady attachment therefore to royalty, will come reluctantly into the idea of independency,” he wrote.

 

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So on July 9, at six o clock in evening, Washington ordered his troops to gather. He had previewed the contents of the document and included it in his “General’s Orders,” which would be read aloud to the men.

But it came with a caveat. Washington had warned the troops of the consequences that any official documentation of independence would mean if defeated. Treason, he implored, was something the British ruler did not take lightly. Traitors in the past were subject to gruesome disemboweling and beheadings, he explained. Washington himself knew if captured, he would be hanged.

This was literally a fight to the end, he argued.

The men stood with anticipation as the “General’s Orders” were read. Patiently they waited as several mundane paragraphs of typical military reports and directives were announced. One included the procurement of a chaplain assigned to each regiment. “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger,” the missive proclaimed.

Then finally…

“…The Honorable the Continental Congress impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the connection which subsisted between the Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of America, free and independent STATES.”

Upon hearing the words, the men let up “three huzzas” a witness reported. In fact, their enthusiasm led to an act of debauchery that irked Washington. The soldiers marched down Broadway Street and proceeded to topple the large statue of King George III, decapitating it in the process.

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Washington was livid. He told the troops that while their “high spirits” was commendable, their behavior was not. The general wanted an army of orderly respectful men, not savages. Even defacing the likeness of the British King was inadmissible in his eyes.

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However sanctimonious that may have sounded, Washington must have been pleased that the statue’s 4 ,000 pounds of gilded lead was melted down to make nearly 43-thousand musket bullets.

Washington was also thrilled by his troop’s eagerness to fight. “They [the British] will have to wade through much blood and slaughter before they can carry out any part of our works,” he wrote about the impending conflict.

Then on July 12, several British ships, including the forty-gun Phoenix, cut through a thin American defense and blasted the city. It was a show of force meant to rattle the colonists into submissiveness. It certainly rattled the nerves of Washington’s untested soldiers who were shaken and distressed by the cries of women and children fleeing the blasts. There was little resistance.

Washington later expressed his disappointment. “A weak curiosity at such a time makes a man look mean and contemptible,” he said chastising the troops.

After the embarrassment, British commander William Howe offered Washington clemency for the rebels if the General surrendered. Washington flatly refused.

The following month, it would get worse. Due to more defeats, the rebels were forced to flee New York to Pennsylvania and reorganize.  Later that year, in December, Washington would famously cross the icy Delaware River for a surprise attack in Trenton, New Jersey.

The Revolutionary War would continue for another seven years.

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Amelia Earhart, the Pioneer Pilot of the Helicopter Prototype

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By Ken Zurski

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On April 8 1931, Amelia Earhart , in full pilot jumpsuit mode, stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pilots for more than a year.  Earhart, who two years earlier had become the first woman to fly an airplane solo over the Atlantic, was trying to break another record,  an altitude peak, in the mostly untested autogiro.

At the time, an autogiro, was considered an unstable and unproven contraption. But there were advantages.  It could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. Unlike the airplane, however, It could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground.  A large rotor blade sat on top and provided lift. The blade was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.

Introduced in the 1930’s, autogiros, was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane, if only they could be as reliable. Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design, minus the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the modern day helicopter, one person must be recognized.

One you famously know.

The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.

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With a large contingent of press on site and an appreciative crowd, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own – and her aircraft’s – capabilities. Maybe she would abandon the next attempt, the press speculated. She answered that question by going up again, this time reaching a height of 18,415 feet and breaking – or making –a new record. She safely brought the craft back to the ground.

She was lauded in her efforts, but wanted more. So did the press. They figured she would try a transcontinental trip in an autogiro, the first of its kind, which she did successfully. But her efforts were overshadowed by another pilot named John Miller who quietly attempted the same feat without the fanfare or publicity that Earhart demanded. He completed the route first, although both pilots had no idea of the other’s intentions.

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That same year in 1931, Earhart crashed her autogiro at an airshow in Detroit. Her husband, George Putnam, was the first to arrive at the wreckage: “I saw Amelia emerge from the dust and wave her hands in the air,” he said. “She was unhurt.” But Putnam was on the ground, writhing in pain. In his haste to reach the wreck site he tripped, fell and cracked three ribs. “Never had I run so fast,” he described afterwards, “until one of the guy wires caught my pumping legs exactly at the ankles.”

Unaware of her husband’s injury, Earhart happily waved to the crowd.

While she was glad to walk away unscathed and Putman’s predicament was just an unfortunate accident, it would be her last call with the autogiro.

She went back to an airplane.

Tragically, six years later in 1937, we all know how her story ends.

 

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The ‘Turnspit Dog’ Had a Place and a Purpose

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By Ken Zurski

The history of working dogs go way back, centuries in fact to the age of the Vikings, who used the stout, strong breeds for hunting and herding cattle. Some of these breeds, including the Nork or Norwegian Elkhound, remain viable even today.

But perhaps no other breed better exemplifies the skill and resiliency of a working dog more than the Turnspit, or kitchen dog, whose job it was to turn the spit and cook the meat over a roasting fire.

This was accomplished by a wooden wheel that was mounted on the wall and connected by ropes to the spit in front of the fireplace. The dog would be hoisted on the wheel and begin to run, similar to a hamster in a cage. As the dog ran, the wheel spun, the spit turned, and the meat cooked evenly. To keep the dog from overheating or fainting the wheel was placed just far enough away from the heat and sparks. And when a dog tired another dog would be ready to take its place.

Until the 16th century when turnspit dogs were introduced, the turning of the cooking spit was the responsibility of a lowest ranking family member, usually the youngest child and almost always a boy. The job was grueling and often resulted in burns, blisters, sores or worse. Dogs were just a better option. Plus they could work longer and would ask for nothing more than to be fed.

Descriptions vary a bit but the overall picture of a “Turnspit” paints a dog with short or crooked legs, a heavy head, and dropping ears.

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They were low-bodied, strong, sturdy and as one dog historian notes, endured cruel punishment. To train the dog to run faster, oftentimes a burning coal was thrown into the wheel.

In 1750, Turnspits were reportedly everywhere in Great Britain. (There are only a few instances that show them in America.) A century later, in 1850, the turnspit breed was nearly gone. The availability of cheaper spit-turning machines, called clock jacks, replaced the Turnspits. And since the dogs were considered unappealing and mostly unfriendly, no one kept them as pets. Today the extinct breed is compared to a Welsh Corgi, although its similarities are in looks only.

According to sources, the turnspit dogs would get one day off from the wheel: Sunday.

Not for any spiritual connotation, mind you, but for another useful purpose.

They made good foot warmers in drafty church pews.

For a Long, Long Time No One Knew who ‘Betsy Ross’ Was

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By Ken Zurski

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In 1752, in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, Elizabeth Griscom was born to a strict Quaker family who emigrated to the United States from England in the late 17th century.

A free spirit in her twenties, Elizabeth ran off and met John Ross an upholsterer’s apprentice and an Episcopalian. Her parents forbade the union outside the Quaker faith, but Elizabeth didn’t care. She married John in a ceremony that took place in a tavern and formally became Elizabeth Ross or “Betsy,” for short.

Today, Betsy Ross is certainly name we recognize.

So much so that in contemporary surveys, many people acknowledge the name Betsy Ross more than interminable historical stalwarts like Benjamin Franklin or Christopher Columbus.  However, until her name became synonymous with America’s symbol of freedom, Betsy Ross was a sister, a mother, a widow (three times over), a seamstress, and by the time the rest of the country got to know her – dead for nearly 50 years.

If there was something special about her life, a slice of American folklore, perhaps, she told her family and no one else.

In 1870, however, that would change.

That year, Ross’s last surviving grandson William Canby went before the Historical Society in Philadelphia and told an amazing story about his grandmother, General George Washington, and the birth of the American Flag.

According to Canby, Washington had visited Ross’s upholstery shop in Philadelphia with a sketch idea for a unified flag and asked if Betsy could recreate it. “With her usual modesty and self-reliance,” Canby related, “she did not know, but said she could try.”

Canby says among other revisions, Betsy suggested that the stars be five-pointed rather than six as Washington had proposed (Washington thought the six-pointed star would be easier to replicate). The story was as revealing as it was skeptical. No one had heard of Betsy Ross and previous stories of the first flag was apocryphal at best. There were many nonbelievers and even today historians have doubts. There are no records to support Canby’s claim, they insist, even though Canby had signed affidavits to back up his story.

At the time of Washington’s proposed visit in 1777, Ross would have been in her 20’s. Her life was typical for a young women at the time. She endured two marriages that ended tragically (her first and second husband’s death were both attributed to war.) A third marriage produced five children. She passed away in 1836 at the age of 84.  There is no documentation that she publicly promoted her own role in making of the flag – or was even asked. Apparently only her family knew.

Nearly a century later, however, in the midst of the Reconstruction period, a changing nation embraced Canby’s story of his grandmother and Ross became the face of America’s first flag. The early flag became affectionately known as “The Betsy Ross Flag,” and trinkets of the thirteen stars and stripes were a big seller.

Even hardened critics, who claim many seamstresses may have played a role in the flag’s creation are willing to concede, for history’s sake at least, that one name gets credit for the five-pointed stars.

Betsy Ross.

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The ‘Brain Band’ of John Philip Sousa

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By Ken Zurski

Bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa was never one to hurry a piece of music. A tune would come to him and he would play it over and over in his head until it was just right – or as he called it, the “brain band” would perform it before a single note was ever recorded on paper.

That’s exactly what happened in 1896, while Sousa was returning from a trip overseas.

Sousa was forced to cut the trip short after receiving news that his longtime manager had passed away.  Pacing the deck of the steamer Teutonic, Sousa heard a tune in his head and the “brain band” took over.

“Day after day,” he said,” as I walked, it persisted in crashing into my very soul.”

When Sousa returned to America, he set it to paper: “It was a genuine inspiration, irresistible, complete, and definite and I could not rest until I had finished the composition.”

“Stars and Stripes Forever” quickly became Sousa’s most popular march.

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