Monthly Archives: June 2013


George Frideric Handel, bigwig composer -- portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1727

George Frideric Handel, bigwig composer — portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1727

The same clothing and accessories that make you feel fashionable now will probably make you feel foolish when you flip through old photos in the future.  If you were a man in the 1970s, for instance, you now see pictures of your younger self in plaid pants and shirts with giant collars, and realize that some clown suits are more understated.

At least we came to our senses after a while and moved on to Members Only jackets in the 1980s.  That is in contrast to men of earlier centuries who clung forever to the notion that large powdered wigs made them look cool.

Wigs had been around since ancient Egyptian times, but they became the European rage in the 17th century.  That fashion seems to have caught on at first for practical reasons; specifically, personal hygiene back then was, quite literally, lousy.  Since bathing was only an occasional occurrence, infestation with head lice was a common problem.

Nitpicking — the task of removing nits (lice eggs) from the scalp — was time-consuming, uncomfortable and often ineffective.  For men of rank and privilege, it was easier to shave one’s head and wear a wig.  The wigs got infested, too, but they could periodically be sent out to be boiled, which wasn’t a convenient thing to do with one’s actual head.

The headdresses of the 1600s were elaborate — sometimes shoulder-length and beyond.  They were quite expensive, of course, so they were status symbols.  That’s how the term “bigwig” came to mean “an important or high-ranking person.”

Since the rich snobs had wigs, naturally middle-class strivers wanted them, too.  There was demand for less expensive wigs, and it was rumored during the 17th century that some of the hair for the more affordable ones was, uh, harvested from plague victims.

The higher-quality periwigs or perukes, as they came to be known, were made of horse or goat hair, or sometimes wool.  If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the expression “pulling the wool over his eyes”, it’s based on a common practical joke from that period.  A prankster would sneak up and tip a fellow’s wig over his eyes, causing him to temporarily be unable to see.  That allowed the opportunity to deceive him, which is the current meaning of the expression.

The wigs were powdered with starch or flour, often scented with lavender.  In retrospect, it may have seemed a bit insensitive of French noblemen to put food products in their perukes when poor people were starving.  That probably contributed to wigs starting to disappear in France around the time of the Revolution, when heads also started to disappear.

Meanwhile, the English government — which had previously levied a tax on hats, gloves, wallpaper and windows — imposed a tax on hair powder in 1795.  Demand for powder waned, and men decided they could live without wigs, too.

The only vestiges of wig-wearing that remain are among U.K. judges and barristers in certain kinds of cases.  The rationale for doing so, apart from the fact that it’s traditional, is that robes and wigs confer dignity and solemnity.  Maybe.  Personally, I think a guy in a horsehair periwig would look just as dignified wearing a Hello Kitty backpack.

Baseball’s First Bionic Arm

"I don't know how to describe it, Doctor Jobe. It sort of feels like my elbow is on fire."

“I don’t know how to describe it, Doctor Jobe. It sort of feels like my elbow is on fire.”

Tommy John has been immortalized for something he didn’t do.

Even if you’re just a casual baseball fan, you’ve probably heard of Tommy John Surgery, since it has been done to hundreds of ballplayers over the past several decades.  The thing is, Tommy didn’t perform that first operation, as some might mistakenly think — it was performed on him.

In July of 1974, John was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  His record was 13-3; he had an impressive Earned Run Average of 2.59 on the night he threw a sinker and felt his arm go fiery pins-and-needles.  The sinker didn’t sink; instead, the ball sailed toward the box seats.  He had just torn the ligament in his left elbow.

After a month of complete rest didn’t produce any improvement in John’s throwing arm, Dodgers team doctor Frank Jobe made his own unorthodox pitch.  He proposed surgery to replace the torn ligament with a tendon taken from Tommy John’s right wrist.

Doctor Jobe had some hope that it might work because he had done a similar procedure on the ankle of a patient afflicted with polio.  Still, he didn’t give Tommy John a glowing prognosis — he told the pitcher that there was maybe a one percent chance that he’d be able to resume pitching.

The doctor explained how the graft would be performed:  Holes would be drilled in the ulna and humerus bones, through which the harvested tendon would be laced in a figure-eight pattern.  As Dr. Jobe later recalled, John looked him in the eye and said, “Let’s do it.”

The original Tommy John surgery (now known to the medical community as Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction) was performed on September 25, 1974.  It was followed by about 18 months of rehabilitation, which is the part of the process for which “T.J.” does deserve credit.  He worked at it diligently; part of his rehab was playing catch with his wife Sally.

In the 1976 season he returned to the mound, and on his third start of that season, Tommy John got his 125th career victory.  He continued pitching until 1989, when he was 46 years old, and by then he had amassed 288 career wins.  That is the seventh-most of all time by a left-handed pitcher.  Well over half of his wins — 164 — came after the surgery.

In the years since 1974, Dr. Jobe and other surgeons have performed tens of thousands of UCL reconstructions.  Some of the Major League pitchers who have undergone the procedure are John Smoltz, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Carpenter, David Wells, Adam Wainwright and Brian Wilson.  Prospects for successful recovery are now in the range of 90 percent.

So far, no pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery has made it into the Hall of Fame, including Tommy John.  The highest tally of votes he ever received from the Baseball Writers is 31.7%, despite having been a four-time All-Star with 46 career shutouts.

Based on his baseball accomplishments, Tommy John deserves to be recognized for more than a procedure that was performed on his left elbow.  Doctor Frank Jobe probably deserves to have that medical procedure named for him, and not for his patient.

As it happens, this July the doctor is going to be honored for his contributions to baseball  by the Hall of Fame.  Tommy John plans to attend the ceremony.