In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
With his career hanging in the balance, Los Angeles Dodgers left-handed pitcher Tommy John undergoes an experimental surgery designed to rebuild a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. The surgery was given a one percent chance of succeeding as Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers team physician toon a tendon from John’s wrist and grafted it into the elbow. Tommy John would return 1976 and pitch another 14 years.
Tommy John was born May 22, 1963, in Terra Haute, Indiana. A two-sport star in high school, John chose baseball of basketball, when he signed his first professional contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1961. Two years later, Tommy John made his debut, playing parts of two seasons with the Tribe before he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. With the White Sox, John was a solid pitcher pitching on a bad team, posting an 82-80 record with a 2.95 ERA in seven seasons, making his first All-Star team in 1968. After the 1971 season, Tommy John was dealt again, this time to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Dick Allen. In Los Angeles, John had his greatest success posting a record of 40-15 over three seasons, including a 13-3 record in 1974 when his career came to an erupt halt.
At the age of 31, Tommy John was given two options by Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers team doctor who diagnosed him with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. He could relearn how to pitch without a UCL, at a diminished velocity or he could undergo an experimental surgery where a ligament from his wrist was moved to his elbow, to create a new UCL. The surgery which had never been performed was given a one percent chance of being successful.
The surgery involved a long hard rehab that began with his elbow immobilized with a brace at a 90-degree angle for three months. Once he was able to begin, throwing Tommy John began to work with teammate Mike Marshall, who had a Ph.D. in kinesiology and helped him find a new way to pitch. After missing the entire 1975 season, Tommy John returned and won ten games with the Dodgers in 1976. A year later, Tommy John became a 20-game winner for the first time helping the Dodgers win back-to-back pennants while finishing second in Cy Young voting behind Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies.
After a second All-Star appearance with the Dodgers in 1978, Tommy John cashed in and signed a big deal with the New York Yankees. In New York, John finished second in the Cy Young voting to Mike Flanagan of the Baltimore Orioles in his first season with the Yankees in 1979 with 21 wins in 1979 and he made two All-Star appearances. Tommy John would spend four seasons in the Bronx, helping the Yankees to a pennant in 1981, where he proved to be a jinx as the Yankees lost to the Dodgers. Earlier Tommy John had been on the Dodgers when they lost the World Series to the Yankees in 1977 and 1978. Tommy John was traded to the California Angels in 1982 but returned to the Yankees in 1986 after spending four years in Anaheim and a half season with the Oakland Athletics.
Tommy John’s career would end with the Yankees in 1989, pitching 14 seasons after the surgery. By pitching 26 seasons, John set a record that was later broken by Nolan Ryan for most major league seasons. Over those 26 years, Tommy John posted a record of 288-231, with an ERA of 3.34 and 2,245 strikeouts. Incredibly, he won more games after the surgery (164) than before (124), while setting a record with 188 no decisions.
Four decades later, Tommy John surgery has become nearly routine, but despite 288 wins, the man who bravely had it done first has been egregiously ignored by the Hall of Fame. The time has come and Cooperstown needs to open the door, for the man who is the first to have the surgery done, saving and extending his career and many others.