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Tommy John: The Pitcher, the Surgery

By Tim Wendel, August 30, 2015
Source: Tim Wendel

Halfway through the 1974 season, Tommy John was 13–3. On the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching staff that included Andy Messersmith, Don Sutton, and Mike Marshall, then the top closer in the game, John didn’t take a backseat to anybody. There was even talk of the southpaw enjoying a 30-win season. But that discussion ended on a pitch to Montreal Expos first baseman Hal Breeden.

“I threw him a sinker,” John told me decades later. “I’ll never forget that pitch or Hal Breeden as long as I live.”

As soon as John let the ball go, he felt “a crazy sensation” in his left elbow. For an instant, the joint felt like it was coming apart. Afterward John shook his arm, wanting to believe it was just a cramp.

“I remember thinking, ‘Gee whiz, that was really foul. Did I get out of sync or something with arm slot or delivery?’” he said.

When John tried to throw another pitch, the sharp pain returned, and he later said, “It wasn’t like anything else I’d had before.”

The left-hander was already walking off the mound as Dodgers Manager Walter Alston came out of the dugout.

“What’s wrong?” the skipper asked.

“I hurt myself,” John replied.

Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers’ physician, was in attendance that day at Chavez Ravine, and he soon joined John in the dugout. He examined John’s elbow and found that the joint was loose to the touch. After a visit to Dr. Herb Stark, an expert in tendon injuries, it was concluded that John had torn his medial collateral ligament, which ties the arm’s two largest bones, the ulna and humerus, together. Back in the mid-1970s, this meant the end of a pitcher’s career.

1974 Topps #451
Source: The Trading Card Database, www.tradingcarddb.com

The timing couldn’t have been worse. John’s wife, Sally, was pregnant with their first child. With one pitch, the left-hander had seemingly gone from being the family’s breadwinner to being out of baseball as a player. Even Jobe advised John to look for another line of work. But the pitcher was insistent—there had to be a way to prolong his big league career.

Hypothetically, Jobe told him, a tendon could be taken from elsewhere in the body and used to restring the damaged joint. Holes could be drilled into the ulna and humerus bones to hold the joint together. Even though that sounded like so much science fiction back in the 1970s, John was intrigued.

“I couldn’t imagine my life without baseball,” John remembered. “I was ready to do this even after I asked about the chances of this succeeding and Dr. Jobe said, ‘One, maybe two chances in a 100.’ I said OK because that’s how much I still wanted to play ball at the highest level.”

While John went ahead with the radical surgery, he also pursued a backup plan that he didn’t reveal until years later. The left-hander contacted Hoyt Wilhelm at his home in Sarasota. If the operation didn’t work out, John asked if Wilhelm would teach him how to throw a knuckleball.

Eventually, John required two operations: one to knit the joint together and another to clear away scar tissue. Afterward the pitcher remembered that his left hand looked like “a monkey paw” because the fingers had curled up into the palm.

Even though John couldn’t quite grip a baseball, he attended spring training in Florida in 1975. Several of his Dodger teammates questioned why he was there, and none of the catchers had time to catch his meager deliveries. So John took a bag of balls and threw for hours against a concrete wall.

“What I tell guys who’ve had this surgery is that it’s like learning how to pitch all over again,” John told me. “You have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have good days and a lot of bad days. No avoiding it because of the steep learning curve involved.”

As the 1975 season began, John was in the Dodgers’ dugout, charting pitches. He said Jobe, Third-Base Coach Tommy Lasorda, and Scouting Director Ben Wade were the only ones supportive of his comeback bid. Any progress would be slow; Jobe had told him that nerves regenerate at the rate of an inch a month.

The revolutionary ligament replacement surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 resurrected pitcher Tommy John’s career.
Source: Los Angeles Dodgers

One morning on the way to the ballpark, John saw that he could raise his left pinkie finger, ever so slightly, off the steering wheel. Maybe this comeback of his wasn’t as impossible as everybody thought.

John sat out the entire 1975 season and was eager to put in some real time on the mound the following spring. But games in Florida and Arizona were cut short by a labor dispute between the owners and players. By the time it was settled, John had appeared in only three contests.

As soon as the regular season got underway, the Dodgers’ patience began to run out. In John’s first game, he served up a three-run homer. Before his second start, against the Houston Astros, Alston said he needed to show the ballclub something. If not, John could be released.

After the first two Astros hitters got on base, Alston ordered his bullpen to start warming up. Houston’s Cesar Cedeno hit into a potential double play, but the relay was thrown away.

When John fell into a 3–0 hole on the Astros’ Bob Watson, Dodgers catcher Joe Ferguson came out to the mound. “Now we’re gonna find out what you’re made of,” he told John. “Forget about the hand, forget about the elbow, forget everything. I want to see smoke. Gimme your best fastball. Throw as hard as you can—let ’er rip.”

John threw three fastballs and struck Watson out. From there, the Dodgers’ left-hander never looked back. He finished the 1976 season with a 10–10 record and was named Comeback Player of the Year. He would win 20 games for the first time in his career the following season and go on to pitch another 14 seasons in the Majors. Still, what he will always be remembered for is the surgery that now bears his name.

Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was supportive of Tommy John’s return to baseball after surgery.
Source: BestSportsPhotos.com

Historically, 15 to 20 pitchers at the Major League level have this operation annually. In recent years, that number has escalated to 25 to 30 pitchers. A survey cited by the American Sports Medicine Institute found that 25 percent of active Major League pitchers and 15 percent of minor league pitchers have had the operation John pioneered, with the Mets’ Zack Wheeler and the Rangers’ Yu Darvish the latest aces to go under the knife.

Kids in high school and even younger are now having the operation. Some would say too many. It’s become a rite of passage in the game, with players and parents believing that the operation can make the arm stronger. A study by the American Orthopedic Society found that 83 percent of athletes who had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery returned to action at “the same or better level of play.”

When John managed in the minors, he was stunned to meet players who had his operation not just once but twice. Yet there’s a growing feeling within baseball that two Tommy John surgeries may be one too many. The Washington Nationals, for example, maintain that a top-flight pitcher only has a 20 percent chance of returning to form after a second Tommy John surgery. The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell recently wrote that’s why the Nationals aren’t ready to pay big bucks to Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. Both aces have already had Tommy John surgery. Why risk millions on a second time around the block?

For his part, John has no opinion about multiple elbow reconstructions. After all, he did very well with one, thank you very much. But when he looks back upon being a pioneer in the game, he has only two regrets.

One is that Dr. Jobe, who died in 2014, doesn’t have a bronze plaque at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. (Some believe that John, who compiled a 288–231 record during 26 seasons in the Majors, should be so honored too.)

As for the second reservation about the past?

“I wish I’d gotten a dollar or so for every time somebody mentions my name with Dr. Jobe’s procedure,” John said. “Can you imagine the residuals for something like that? It would have set me up for life.

Credit: HowStuffWorks.com


Tim Wendel is the author of 11 books, including High Heat and Summer of ‘68.

 

 

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