Since 1974 countless numbers of major league pitchers have had their careers saved through what some still call a miracle process, Tommy John surgery. The latest to reap its medical benefits will undoubtedly be the fire balling phenom Steven Strassburg, born 14 years after Dr. Frank Jobe first performed the operation.
But who is Tommy John?
Many will be surprised to learn that he was an all-star pitcher who’s career played out through three decades. Let’s meet the man whose name has come to mean ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, or UCL.
Tommy was a lefty born in 1943 in Terre Haute, Indiana. He signed as an amateur free agent in 1961 with the Cleveland Indians and reached the majors in 1963. Two years later, he became a Chicago White Sox where he pitched for seven years, compiling an 82-79 record, along with an all-star selection in 1968.
Seven years after moving to Chicago, Los Angeles acquired his services to help make Hall of Famer Don Sutton and the Dodgers major contenders. In 1974 with a 13-3, 2.59 ERA record and the Dodgers leading their division, Tommy blew out his elbow.
Previously such an injury meant the end of a pitching career, including the great Sandy Koufax, but Tommy wouldn’t have any of that. At 31 years old and a decent 12-year major league (124 wins 95 losses) campaign on the books, he opted for a new procedure that at the time had never been tried before, but if successful, would resuscitate his big league career.
He found a doctor named Frank Jobe who devised a new technique that would remove a tendon from either Tommy’s wrist or hamstring and graft it to the elbow, woven in figure eight fashion through the bones in the elbow. With his career done, failure would mean that his career would remain done, but success would mean pitching in the majors once again. Tommy agreed to the procedure and the rest is history.
Career after surgery
Tommy missed all of the 1975 season and to everyone’s surprise and amazement, returned to the Dodgers starting rotation in 1976, where he posted a respectable 10-10 record along 3.09 ERA. A miraculous medical and athletic achievement by all accounts.
But wait the best was yet to come. From 1977 to 1980, Tommy became a three time 20 game winner, compiling an 80-35 record. One of the better four year runs in major league history, and all that with a reconstructed elbow.
The surgery today
Tommy John Surgery is firmly engraved in the sporting world. Lucrative contracts are given to pitchers during and after the procedure, and for good reasons. Many like Tommy, find themselves with a stronger arm then prior to the surgery. The list of top line pitchers who have successfully continued their career after Tommy John surgery grows yearly. With an 85% or more success rate Steven Strassburg and other future stars need not worry, better pitching days are on the horizon.
Tommy’s final stats
Tommy John went on to pitch 15 more years in the majors for a total of 27 years. If his 288 wins, 2245 strikeouts and near 30-year career is not enough to induct him into the Hall Of Fame, surely, the legacy of the surgery, its pioneering bravery and powerful lasting impact on sports should be enough for the veteran’s committee to give him the nod.
There are two baseball players with their own medical conditions, one is a virtual death sentence Lou Gherig disease and the other is career saving.
Here’s to Tommy John and the Tommy John surgery.