T.J. and the Doc
Thirty-five years ago today, the very first “Tommy John” surgery was performed, on Dodgers pitcher Tommy John (who else?), who–besides being a pretty good baseball player–was the guinea pig for a revolutionary procedure that would become a force in sports medicine for years to come.
When John hurt his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm that season, few thought he’d ever pitch again. But Dr. Frank Jobe performed the first-ever ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, in which a ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. The successful operation allowed the left-handed pitcher to win 164 more games over the next 14 seasons of his career, during which he never missed a start, and his name has been applied to what is now a standard surgical procedure. Only eight years earlier, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax’s career ended due to an elbow ligament injury, and countless other pitchers were forced into early retirement for the same reason.
Prior to this groundbreaking surgery, Tommy John had won 124 career games, and possessed the best record in the NL (13-3) in that 1974 season for the National League champion Dodgers.
Sixteen years later, Dr. Jobe performed another breakthrough procedure, the reconstruction of the right shoulder of Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, which had never been successfully performed on a major league pitcher. Hershiser went on to pitch for another decade. Since then, Dr. Jobe has performed about 1,000 Tommy John surgeries on
pitchers; and more than 75 active Major League players–not only
pitchers–have undergone the surgery. Jobe began working with the Dodgers in 1964 and has served as the club’s orthopedic doctor since 1968. He currently serves as Special Advisor to Dodgers Owner and Chairman Frank McCourt.
And Tommy John? His career win-loss record is 288-231, with a 3.34 career ERA. He pitched at the major league level for nearly 27 years, mostly with the Dodgers, Yankees and White Sox, and retired at age 46.
But what took place 35 years ago today, on September 25, 1974, was a bold step into the unknown, and baseball owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Jobe.