Most days you’ll likely find Tommy John on a golf course. That is of course, when he’s not blogging for Varsity Scoreboards, or working as a baseball agent, scout and advisor for MK Sports and Entertainment Group. At 68 TJ sports an impressive 12 handicap, yet despite a career that lasted 26 seasons and includes 288 career wins, the 7th most in baseball history for a left-handed pitcher, he’s best known for the historic elbow surgery that bears his name.
In the middle of the 1974 season, his 12th season in the majors TJ was cruising along with a 13-3 record with the Dodgers, who were en route to the NL pennant. Unfortunately he permanently damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm, leading to a revolutionary surgical operation.
Dr. Frank Jobe, a member of the Dodgers medical team since 1968, said he invented the procedure only after TJ urged him to find a solution. According to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, Jobe recalls:
“At the time, sports surgeries of any type were rare and John was not responding to traditional therapy. I suggested he take up golf. He said to come up with something. I knew I could fix it, but I didn’t know if the body would invade the elbow with blood vessels. The chance of success was pretty poor. I didn’t have much faith in it.”
The surgery, now known as Tommy John Surgery (It has it’s own Wikipedia page) , was performed on September 25, 1974, although it seemed unlikely TJ would ever be able to pitch again. The operation involves harvesting a non-essential tendon from the opposite wrist or a leg that is used to replace the torn ulnar collateral ligament, which stabilizes the elbow. The new ligament is tied in a figure-eight pattern through holes drilled into the ulna and humerus bones that form the elbow.
Before this remarkable breakthrough, pitchers such as Sandy Koufax retired due to elbow problems referred to simply as “dead arm.”
“People with a torn ligament were sent back to the farm or wherever they came from,” says Jobe, who still assists on the surgeries. “But Tommy didn’t want to go.”
TJ spent the entire 1975 season in recovery, and worked with teammate Mike Marshall strengthening his shoulder, a key component of the post-surgery rehabilitation. TJ returned in 1976, he made 31 starts, threw over 200 innings and won 10 games for the Dodgers. Remarkably he would go on to pitch 14 years post-surgery and win 164 games, make 3 all-star teams, and win 20+ games in 1977, 1979 and a career high 22 games in 1980.
“I watched every start of his carefully, but I waited several years before trying another. I thought it might be a fluke. Now it’s done by all the doctors.”
John’s experiment changed the way sports medicine was practiced; hence it became “his” surgery. Today, the Tommy John procedure inches towards near-perfection, as the odds of full recovery are estimated at 92 percent. Doctors typically complete the operation in about an hour — less than one-third of the time it first took — and an overnight hospital stay is not always required.
Rehab is usually a year, but it typically takes another full year of pitching before pitchers return to their pre-surgery form.
A Google search estimates over 150 former/current MLB players have had the operation. If you include High School and College players the number of surgeries is in the thousands. In fact Jobe has performed more than 1,000 of the surgeries himself. While baseball pitchers are most susceptible to the injury, the surgery has spread to quarterbacks in football, and many other sports.
TJ was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to stop by Lasorda’s Lair, the result is some great material for our readers. Enjoy.
Kenny: First of all Tommy thank you for your time, where are you and what are you up to these days?
Tommy: I do part time work selling sports scoreboards and my primary job is a baseball agent. Not a Scott Boras but I am an advisor and a scout for MK Sports and Entertainment Group.
Kenny: How surreal is it to have your name attached to baseball’s most famous surgery and can you describe what you were going through and how Dr. Jobe approached you about the procedure?
Tommy: Never in a million years did I think that the surgery would be this widespread. It borders epidemic. Dr. Jobe told me I didn’t need the surgery but I would NEVER pitch in the Major Leagues again. So, I said “What’s the problem Dr. Jobe? Let’s git er done.”
Kenny: What were your expectations post-surgery? Realizing no one had undergone this procedure before did you realistically expect to pitch again?
Tommy: I knew that I couldn’t pitch again in 1975 so I didn’t try. I just took my time and I threw a baseball every day from 1975 until I retired in 1989. Every day during the baseball season that is. I got some shoulder exercises from teammate Mike Marshall that helped but the throwing every single day really did the trick.
Kenny: You were part of some great Dodger teams, what is your favorite Tommy Lasorda story you have while playing for him?
Tommy: Tommy used to tell us all these stories of stuff that he used to do when he pitched. On one occasion he tried to drown his shortstop, Chico Fernandez, in the beer cooler because he didn’t hustle after a pop fly. They were separated and things got back to normal. My question to Tommy was, “You think you can handle all types of players. What if you had Tommy Lasorda on your team? How would you handle him? “ Lasorda replied, “Thank God there is only one of me!!!”
Kenny: The Dodger teams of the ‘70’s were known for doing things “The Dodger Way” the franchise has gotten away from this, do you think bringing back coaches like Davey Lopes can help the Dodgers regain “The Dodger Way” or has the game changed too much?
Tommy: The Dodger way was brought on by the O’Malley family and not just the way we played baseball. The O’Malley’s made you want to come to the park and perform for the fans, made us proud to wear Dodger Blue. The Dodgers need Lopes but they need a change of ownership more than anything. Maybe Mark Cuban?
Kenny: I completely agree. What is your most memorable or proudest moment from your career something that either occurred on or off the field?
Tommy: 1981 I was with the Yankees and my 2 year old son, Travis, fell from a 3rd story window at a home he and his Mother were visiting. Travis was in a coma for 17 days and in the hospital for 30 days. George Steinbrenner asked Travis to throw out the first pitch at a playoff game. I just happened to be pitching that game. I asked my friend Reggie Jackson, to escort my wife and Travis out to the mound. After Travis threw the first pitch, Reggie held Travis up for all the fans to see. 56,000 fans rose to their feet chanting “TRAVIS, TRAVIS, TRAVIS” I had to go try to pitch with tears streaming down my face.
Kenny: Who was the most memorable teammate you played with during your 26 years in the Big Leagues?
Tommy: Reggie Jackson. Reggie was all things but most of all he was a friend and he could drive in runs. All I cared about was his production. He loved the spotlight and NYC was the place for him to shine.
Kenny: What is the strangest/funniest thing that you ever witnessed in an MLB clubhouse?
Tommy: Sparky Lyle sitting bare ass naked in a birthday cake that was sent down to the clubhouse for one of the guys. Only in New York kids only in New York!!!!
Thank you Tommy! Because of the profound impact Tommy John Surgery has had on Baseball, it has been suggested that Dr. Jobe be considered for induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Considering TJ finished with 288 career wins and a 3.34 ERA, not to mention the impact of being the first player to undergo such a historic surgery, that has literally prolonged the careers of thousands of athletes, I feel it’s a travesty that TJ is not in the hall of fame. The same can be said for Dr. Jobe. I hope the veterans committee fixes that and they both get the recognition they deserve. Best of luck in all of your future endeavors