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.

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6 responses to “Baseball’s First Bionic Arm

  1. Hi Mr Reeder, This isn’t about Tommy John: this is about Cheers (episode 25 to be precise) which you are credited with, if Wiki is correct. (That late great show is syndicated on NZ TV at the moment.) When students have asked me in the past, who will be regarded in the future as the great writers of our day, I have always told them, forget about the Nobel laureates; to find the writing that will survive into the next centuries, look in the great factory complexes of US TV (the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Globe). Somewhere in there, is a Mr Shakespeare. And last night I was proved right. The end of episode 25 is purest Much Ado About Nothing. Well done and thank you.

    • Thank you so much for your generous comments. You got me to go to my bookshelf and take down that old script, called “Personal Business”, and reread it. It was almost 30 years ago that it was filmed, so I’d forgotten most of what was in it. I’m sure a lot of the good stuff must have been contributed by my writing colleagues; we had many great laughs together.

      We didn’t think we were creating literature — at least, if anybody did, he or she didn’t dare say so out loud. You make an interesting point, though, and I wonder if Shakespeare and his peers thought they were creating immortal works, or just trying to get something down on paper because a deadline was looming.

      I don’t think there was a conscious effort to adapt Much Ado About Nothing to this episode of Cheers, but there is a lot to be said for reading as much good material as possible to improve one’s own writing. You never know when a centuries-old approach to a scene might work in the present.

      Thanks again.

  2. A left-handed pitcher rehabbing by playing catch with his wife Sally? Now I’ve heard everything 🙂

    • Somewhere I read that at first Tommy John played catch with his wife to remind himself not to risk reinjuring his arm by throwing too hard. Firing a fastball at one’s wife can put a strain on the elbow, not to mention the marriage.

  3. Send your Tommy John story to Vin Scully, T.A. I suspect he’ll use some of it when he’s filling time during a conference at the mound.

    • As you know, Vin Scully has been calling Dodgers’ games for over 60 years, so he has told a lot of stories in that time. Your comment got me wondering… when Tommy John’s arm blew up in the 4th inning of that game against the Montreal Expos, what story did Vinny tell while John left the field and the relief pitcher warmed up? It couldn’t have been as compelling as the story that was just beginning to unfold that night.

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