From time to time, In Poor Taste looks back on forgotten slices of Americana. In this installment, we recall Dead-ball Era pitching great Malachi “Four Testicles” O’Bannion, a once-great pitcher for the St. Louis Browns and Pittsburgh Pirates who was born with four testicles, including one that hung from his left ear.
The history of baseball is rife with legendary players, colorful characters and a handful of groundbreaking figures who affected social change that still resonates today. But few figures from America’s pastime have proven as unique as Malachi “Four Testicles” O’Bannion, the first and thus far only player in baseball history to play with four testicles.
The story of Four Testicles O’Bannion begins in rural Oklahoma in 1887, when Maureen Fitzsimmons O’Bannion gave birth to her eighteenth son and thirty-first child, Malachi. Seventeen of Malachi’s older siblings died in childbirth, a not uncommon fate in the late 19th century.
“Back then, the people of Oklahoma had few, if any, of the modern amenities or entertainment options we take for granted today,” noted O’Bannion biographer J. Frederick Washbasin in “Four Balls But No Walks: The Story of Malachi ‘Four Testicles’ O’Bannion.” “So it was not uncommon for married couples living in these darkened, rundown Okie shacks to spend much of their time procreating at rates that would be deemed horribly irresponsible by even the most fervent Irish Catholic. When Mrs. O’Bannion lost a child in childbirth, she would simply take a drag from her tar, beckon her husband, Eamonn, and get back to work on growing her family.”
Into this environment came young Malachi, who astounded onlookers the moment he exited his mother’s womb.
“It’s not just that the boy has four testicles, which would be unusual enough on its own,” O’Bannion family wet nurse Hettie Carmichael told the Ada Chronicle in 1887. “It’s that one of them is hanging from his left ear.”
Unable to afford the surgical procedure that would have removed the youngest O’Bannion’s surplus testicles, the family simply moved on, raising the boy as if he was no different than other children. But O’Bannion was different. Very different. And as is so often the case, Malachi soon became a schoolyard object of ridicule thanks to the oval-shaped, sperm-producing reproductive organ hanging from his ear.
“It was tough for Malachi growing up, but thankfully those mean-spirited children never saw the rest of the cojones quartet,” Eamonn O’Bannion told Washbasin in what is believed to be the only public comments he ever made regarding his unusual son. “Two of them were as normal as my own, but the third one down there was as big as a rail worker’s fist.”
Though he endured his difficult childhood as best he could, Malachi turned to alcohol early in his adolescence, numbing the pain of constant ridicule with corn liquor, a particularly potent form of moonshine popularized in the former Oklahoma Territory.
In spite of his growing dependence on alcohol, by 1905 Malachi managed to earn a spot pitching for the Oklahoma Red Yankees, a barnstorming semi-pro baseball team that played throughout the south central United States. It was here where Malachi was discovered by legendary St. Louis Browns scout James “Crusty” Finnegan, who signed the fireballing young O’Bannion after witnessing the then-17-year-old throw 17 scoreless frames in a game that was rained out after the fifth inning.
“This kid just kept pitching in a driving rainstorm, even though both teams had already long since left the field,” Finnegan later recalled. “Right then and there I knew he and his hideous scrotum ear had a place on the Browns.”
O’Bannion didn’t take long to make his mark on the Browns, as the southpaw exhibited impeccable control while pitching to a 71-38 mark between 1906 and 1908, all the while ignoring the horrified cries of fans who had never before seen a man with a fully functional testicle emerging from just beneath his ball cap.
O’Bannion’s time in St. Louis ended before the 1909 season, when he and his gonad ear were dealt to the powerful Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Frank “Black Pudding” Spillane, who Browns fans were happy to discover had no visibly disconcerting deformities.
The 1909 campaign would prove to be both O’Bannion’s best and final season, as he carried the Pirates to the 1909 World Series, where he famously impressed notoriously rough-around-the-edges Detroit Tigers Star Ty Cobb. Considered among the greatest hitters who ever lived, Cobb referred to O’Bannion as the most talented southpaw he ever faced.
“His speedball was good, but that spitball was unhittable,” remarked Cobb. “But if I’m being honest, it was really that veiny nutsack hanging off his ear and flapping around during his wind-up that made him so tough.”
While O’Bannion’s Pirates would defeat Cobb’s Tigers in the 1909 World Series, by that point O’Bannion’s alcoholism had become so unmanageable that Pittsburgh manager Fred Clarke released him within days of the conclusion of the World Series.
O’Bannion never threw another pitch in organized baseball, ultimately dying from complications of gigantism of the testicle in 1919 at the age of 32.