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.