I imagine everybody these days, including non-baseball fans, knows what Tommy John surgery is. But do they know who Tommy John, the baseball player, was?
Tommy John had a 26-year pitching career in Major League Baseball, but it was only because of an orthopedist named Dr. Frank Jobe that he was able to accomplish this. In 1974, at age 31, John tore an elbow ligament in his left arm while pitching in a game for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dr. Jobe, who had attended the game, performed the landmark surgery to replace the torn ligament with a tendon from John’s right wrist. John agreed to Jobe’s recommendation for this uncertain, yet innovative, procedure, because his baseball career would have otherwise ended.
As a result of his surgery, John was able to extend himself in what could be considered a second major league career. His first, consisting of twelve seasons prior to the surgery, was just an average one.
John began his professional career with the Cleveland Indians organization in 1961 as an 18-year-old from Indiana. He quickly progressed to the big leagues, earning a permanent spot on the Indians’ roster in May 1964. Over the next ten seasons, he recorded double-digit wins in all but one of the seasons, as he played with the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. However, in five of those seasons, he also posted double-digit losses, including 17 and 16 defeats in back-to-back seasons. His 124-106 won-loss record was indicative of being an average, but durable, hurler at that point in his career. He did have one selection to the All-Star Game in 1968.
Then in 1974, John was off to one of his best seasons (13-3 record, 2.59 ERA), when he suffered the fateful injury on July 17 while pitching for the Dodgers against the Montreal Expos. In his autobiography, TJ: My Twenty-Six Years In Baseball, John recalled that he threw a couple of wild pitches in the third inning and heard what sounded like a “collision coming from inside his elbow.”
John waited three weeks before trying to pitch again. In a batting practice session, John couldn’t throw, confirming he had torn elbow ligaments. Despite Dr. Jobe’s estimated odds of 100-1 for his return to the mound, John underwent the surgery anyway in September. In addition to the transplant, John had muscle and nerve damage repaired during the surgery. In December, he underwent a second operation to re-route the nerve because his left hand had gone numb.
John sat out the entire 1975 season rehabilitating from the surgery. In spring training camp with the Dodgers in 1976, he was given little chance for a comeback at age 33. However, he finished with a 10-10 record and 3.09 ERA in remarkable 207 innings pitched. His surprising performance was acknowledged by The Sporting News, who named him the Comeback Player of the Year. Thus, his second career was underway.
With his “miracle” arm, John’s best seasons were ahead of him. In 1977, John won 14 of his last 17 decisions to post a 20-7 record and 2.78 ERA for the season. He finished second to Steve Carlton in the Cy Young Award voting. The Dodgers won the National League pennant but lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.
The Dodgers repeated at National League champs 1978. John was part of a starting rotation that had four pitchers with fifteen or more victories. He compiled a 17-10 record and was selected for his second All-Star Game. This time the Dodgers defeated the Yankees for the World Series championship, with John getting two post-season victories.
The 36-year-old John signed with the rival Yankees as a free agent during the offseason. He rewarded them with a 21-9 record and 2.96 ERA in 1979, while again finishing second in the Cy Young Award balloting. He won a career-high 22 games in 1980 when the Yankees captured the American League East Division title.
In the strike-shortened season in 1981, John posted a 9-8 record as the Yankees returned to the World Series again, only to lose to his former Dodger teammates.
When most pitchers his age had already called it quits, John went on to pitch eight more seasons in the big leagues. After his surgery in 1974, he compiled 164 victories in 14 seasons. He was one of the oldest full-time pitchers in baseball history at age 46, only surpassed later by Nolan Ryan and Jamie Moyer.
Despite his 288 career victories (26th best of all time), John didn’t get serious consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame, gaining 31.7% of the vote in his final year on the ballot, well below the minimum requirement. Unfortunately, he was among those players that Hall voters considered “accumulators”, those who compiled impressive statistics largely due to their longevity in the game.
On a side note, if there was a medical wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, certainly Dr. Jobe would be an inductee, because of his impact on the game.
The ground-breaking surgery has been performed thousands of times since John’s, prolonging the careers of many athletes after him. Recent major league pitchers who have benefitted from Tommy John surgery include star players such as Tim Hudson, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, Stephen Strasburg, Brian Wilson and Matt Harvey. There have already been fifteen pitchers this season who have suffered elbow injuries which will require Tommy John surgery. If Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had the opportunity for such a surgery, his fabulous career may not have ended at age 31.
Dr. Jobe did not specifically name the surgery after Tommy John. Instead, John’s name became frequently used over the years to symbolize the procedure, whose technical medical description is “ulnar collateral ligament construction while using the palmaris longus tendon.” With a complex description like that, you can understand why it became popular for people to just call it “Tommy John surgery.” Sort of reminds us of another legendary ballplayer, Lou Gehrig, whose name is frequently associated with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) disease.