By Glen Sparks
“You’d better get somebody in there. I’ve hurt my arm.” –
Tommy John to Los Angels Dodgers Manager Walt Alston on July 17, 1974
Question: When did Tommy John the surgery become more famous than Tommy John the pitcher?
Tommy John the pitcher put together an outstanding career. He retired with a 288-231 won-loss record in 26 seasons of work. The left-hander posted three 20-win seasons and twice finished runner-up in the Cy Young voting, in 1977 for the Dodgers and in 1979 for the New York Yankees. He was a top-10 finisher two other times, again once with the Dodgers and once with the Yankees. In the post-season, John fashioned a 6-3 mark to go along with a 2.65 ERA.
Despite these some impressive credentials, John struggled to gain any Hall of Fame traction. He topped out at 31.7 percent of the vote in 2009, his last year on the ballot. The baseball writers viewed Tommy John the pitcher as good, not great. Conversely, many writers and fans view Tommy John the surgery as a miracle cure for the ailing elbow.
John won 124 games pre-operation (1963-74) and 164 afterward (76-89). He made all 13 of his post-season starts after undergoing one of the medical world’s most famous procedures..
John’s left elbow went out of whack while he was 13-3 for a 1974 Dodger team that would win the National League pennant. He heard the dreaded “pop” sound and advised Alston to go to the bullpen. Resting the elbow for a few days didn’t make it feel any better.
Dr. Frank Jobe, a medical adviser to the Dodgers, took the ulnar collateral ligament from John’s left elbow and replaced it with a tendon from John’s right forearm. He figured his patient would never pitch again. John said he felt “extremely leery” about the procedure.
Darn if it didn’t work. Following extensive rehab, John put together a 10-10 season for the 1976 Dodgers with a 3.09 ERA (109 ERA+). The following year, he went 20-7 with a 2.78 ERA. (138 ERA+). John left the Dodgers following the 1978 season and went a combined 43-18 for the 1979-80 Yankees. No one was as surprised with his post-surgery success as Tommy John himself.
“Since no pitcher had ever had this kind of operation, no pitcher had ever come back from it,” John wrote in his book, TJ: My 26 Years in Baseball. “No one knew what to expect. We were making medical history.”
Now, Tommy John surgery seems about as common, and as safe, as fixing an ingrown toe nail. Just look at Adam Wainwright, A.J. Burnett, Stephen Strasburg, etc. But, like just about everything else, the real story is a bit more complicated than that.
Hardball Times has an article focusing on the success rate of Tommy John surgery. Jon Roegele offers sobering news, plus some sobering charts, about sports’ most famous medical procedure. The road back can be tricky.
Humorous note on John: He decided to retire in 1989 after Mark McGwire got two hits off him. That’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. But McGwire’s dad was John’s dentist. John explained: “When your dentist’s kid starts getting hits off you, it’s time to retire.”