Thursday, March 6, 2014 marked a sad day in Major League Baseball. Dr. Frank Jobe, the man behind the creation of Tommy John surgery, passed away at the age of 88. The original procedure saved the career of pitcher Tommy John who would pitch for the Dodgers and Yankees among others after his recovery and would be selected to three All-Star games (four total, one pre-surgery). The surgery has been performed on many players every since, but it all started with two men who would unknowingly change baseball.
Years ago a pitcher’s career could end with one bad throw. One tear in the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament and “Poof!” you’re out of baseball. That was it! Game over. Such was the case for Tommy John, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who in 1974 was in the middle of a terrific season. He had started 22 games and sported a 13-3 record with 2.59 ERA and three shutouts. Then the worst happened. John threw one too many sinkers and tore his UCL, seemingly ending his days as a pitcher. But a Dodgers’ medical doctor named Frank Jobe wanted to attempt a new procedure of his own creation to try and repair John’s elbow. Jobe’s idea was to remove the UCL from John’s elbow and replace it with a ligament from another part of his body. The odds of success were slim and Jobe himself stated that the odds were around 1 in 100, but John had no other options and on September 25, 1974 Jobe performed the surgery and John now had to go through an improbable rehabilitation process in order to see if he would ever pitch again.
After 18 months of rehab, Tommy John was set to return to the mound for the Dodgers in 1976. He would start in 31 games and finish the season with a 10-10 record and a 3.09 ERA but he had returned… and baseball would never be the same. In 1977 he won 20 games and finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting. The next year he won 17 of his 33 starts and struck out 124 batters. The year he joined the New York Yankees and won 21 games with a 2.90 ERA and was voted into his second straight All-Star game. He improved once again in 1980, winning 22 games and tossing an astonishing 6 shutouts and 16 complete games. Tommy John had not only recovered from his injury, but he improved and from 1976 to 1989, he won 164 games and threw 91 complete games to go along with 972 total strikeouts and a 3.66 ERA. To the shock of the baseball and medical world, Frank Jobe’s surgery had been a fantastic success and the procedure had become known as Tommy John surgery. John fell just short of Hall of Fame honors in his final year of eligibility in 2009.
Jobe would he heralded for his work on John and fellow baseball players as well as athletes in several other sports. He would make history again by performing major reconstructive shoulder surgery on Dodger great, Orel Hershiser‘s throwing arm. It was the first of its kind to be done on a Major League Baseball player. Jobe served as an orthopedic consultant for the PGA and Champions Tour for 26 years. He was the mentor to Dr. Lewis Yocum who is widely regarded as one of the best orthopedic surgeons in Major League Baseball. In 2012 a campaign to send Frank Jobe to the Baseball Hall of Fame launched and is still raging strong today.
Ever since Jobe successfully mended Tommy John’s UCL, the procedure has become commonplace in baseball. Supremely talented pitchers like Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, Chris Carpenter, David Wells, and Tim Hudson among so many others have found success after undergoing the surgery. Tommy John surgery is still a rough road. Players still require long months of recovery but the chances of success has risen from Jobe’s original prediction of 1 in 100 to 85-95 percent as of 2009. It’s hard to picture a career being cut short so easily these days. Players work their hardest to rise to the Major League level and thanks to medical advances, careers have lasted longer and longer. Today we look at Tommy John surgery as a part of the game but it was only a short time ago that Jobe’s operation seemed impossible. Baseball is a whole different place thanks to Frank Jobe and his very willing guinea pig, Tommy John.