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Was Miguel Olivo's alleged ear-biting unprecedented?

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1B: Cap Anson bit off tip of Oyster Burns’ nose after spiking; swallowed. 1888.

Patrick Smith

On Tuesday, in an event that may well be unprecedented in baseball history, Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes teammates Alex Guerrero, the Dodgers' latest Cuban import, and veteran major-league catcher Miguel Olivo got into a scuffle during which the latter reportedly bit off part of Guerrero's ear.

This happened in the eighth-inning of the Pacific Coast League team's game against the Salt Lake Bees. Now, in-game fights are not uncommon, fights between teammates are not uncommon, and even the combination of the two, in-game fights between teammates, happen now and again. Ear-biting may have happened in boxing (at least once, thanks, Mike Tyson) but examples of this sort of thing are rare in baseball.

Players have suffered the odd ear injury, and in the pre-antibiotic days of the 19th century, players like Pete Browning and Dummy Hoy were reduced to deafness by mastoiditis or meningitis. Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers took a great shot at umpire Hank O'Day after the latter had to have a piece of bone removed from behind his ear after a foul tip struck him: "They made a mistake in that... they did not cut off your whole head instead of a little piece of it." but having an ear chawed off appears to be a new thing.

Searches of all the relevant literature under such topics as "ear injuries," "biting," "cannibalism," and so on fail to turn up much of anything. Bill Terry, the Giants first baseman and manager, did tell this story about the great defensive shortstop Rabbit Maranville when both were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1954:

"There was the day in Boston when I slid into second base. Rabbit had the ball waiting for me., He says to me, ‘Come on in, Billy boy.' When I slid into the bag he fell on top of me, bit my ear, and yelled, ‘I got you.'"

Thing is, Maranville was a cut-up, a constant joker who thought he was a very funny guy -- one gets the sense that he thought he was a lot funnier than he actually was. As such, this seems to suggest more of a love bite, as we pet owners self-deceivingly call it, a nip that didn't break the skin, that something that, in the Victorian days writers would have said "resulted in the effusion of sanguinary fluid." It was just a gag.

This is all very surprising. In its earliest days, baseball was populated by a collection of rowdy alcoholics who were always brawling, and you'd expect there would have been more of this kind of thing. In the 1890s there were reportedly even a couple of fatalities among umpires after batters skulled them with their bats over ball-strike calls, which sounds brutal and tragic -- anecdotes like that used to be written up as party stories. "Hey, did you ever hear about the time the Brooklyn Grooms' first baseman cracked an ump's head wide open? Ho ho ho." As such, I expected to have a list of ear-biting-or-worse All-Stars for you, something like:

C: Deacon McGuire amputated three of teammate Al Maul's fingers during a pitch-calling dispute, 1893. Maul's pitching actually improved by incident.

1B: Cap Anson bit off tip of Oyster Burns' nose after spiking; swallowed. 1888.

2B: Heinie Reitz of the Orioles earns nickname through unfortunate cheek-gouging of Cleveland Spiders' infielder Cupid Childs, resulting in the latter having to play with a colostomy bag from then on, 1893.

3B: Arlie Latham sucked out second baseman Yank Robinson's left eyeball during a dispute over a debt, 1886. Earned him the nickname "The Freshest Man on Earth," although the correlation isn't clear.

SS: "Bad" Bill Dahlen removed part of Phillies manager Bill Shettsline's liver with a runcible spoon, 1900. Released for lack of evidence.

Unfortunately -- let me reword that -- fortunately, it didn't happen that way. Ballplayers threw plenty of punches and beanballs back in the old days, but chowing down on parts of their fellow athletes' anatomy seems either to have not happened or been completely suppressed. Oh, there have been some bad injuries -- the Yankees' Bill Dickey punched Senators outfielder Carl Reynolds in the jaw in 1932, shattering it, resulting in a 30-day suspension and fine for the former and a career-altering injury for the latter. Reynolds nearly died at one point because he threw up with his jaw wired shut and no one had any pliers handy. You just don't see that today.

But ear-biting? That you do see. That's new. It's not exactly what you would call progress, but at least the game hasn't lost its ability to surprise.