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October 6, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute native Tommy John belongs in Cooperstown for pitching like a Hall of Famer

Few players in history left a greater impact on baseball than Tommy John.

And he did so through his performance on the field.

The game would look far different in the 21st century if not for his exploits decades ago. Pitching stars Kerry Wood, John Smoltz, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg owe their extended careers to the guts and talent John displayed from 1976 to 1989. In fact, one-third of the pitchers in the major leagues today — 124 out of 360 active at the outset of the 2013 season, according to research by Bleacher Report  — followed the trail John blazed.

All of those pitchers had their sore arms and careers revived though “Tommy John surgery.”

It bears his name not merely because he volunteered for the experimental elbow surgery, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe on Sept. 25, 1974. Indeed, it took courage for John to submit to the first-of-its-kind procedure in which Jobe replaced the blown-out ulnar collateral ligament in the lefthander’s pitching arm with a healthy ligament harvested from his right arm. The personal stakes were high. Pitchers’ elbows are like pianists’ fingers — essential, priceless. If the operation failed, John’s playing days would likely be over at age 31. Likewise, barring some other revolutionary medical remedy, Wood, Smoltz, Carpenter, Wainwright, Strasburg and hundreds of other pitchers would either have to throw in pain or quit.

The term “Tommy John surgery” would not exist.

Instead, it’s become part of baseball vocabulary because of John’s play afterward.

He pitched so well, for so, so long, doubts about the surgery’s effectiveness disappeared. He validated it. He played like a Hall of Famer.

The surgery is famous because of John, not vice versa. He deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.

That quaint town in the central New York countryside harbors the game’s fabled shrine, the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Plaques for its 300 inductees hang on its walls — 208 former major leaguers, 35 Negro League players, 28 executives, 19 managers and 10 umps. Hall voters (members of the Baseball Writers Association of America) passed over John all 15 years he was eligible in the general balloting. The Veterans Committee (a panel of Hall of Famers assembled to reconsider overlooked players) turned John down, too, in 2010.

This year offers a chance to rectify the situation. The Veterans Committee focuses on different eras, using a three-year rotation. In 2013 (like 2010), they’ll study players from the Expansion Era (those making their greatest contributions after 1973). By Nov. 4, they’ll announce 12 nominees. John should be on that list again. A month later, the Veterans Committee will reveal any new inductees.

John, now 70, has earned that call from the Hall. His hometown of Terre Haute, understandably, believes that. The city is dedicating Tommy John Field in his honor at Spencer F. Ball Park, where he played his last high school game, on Oct. 24, followed by a fundraising dinner in the Indiana Theatre downtown. All proceeds from the dinner, which includes a sports-related silent auction, will go toward improving the field at the ball park.

The gesture is fitting and overdue.

Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee should analyze John’s case from a fresh perspective. Instead of comparing his statistics (Hall-worthy as they are) against other possible inductees such as Ron Guidry, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey and Keith Hernandez, or already enshrined Hall of Famers, committee members need to look at those numbers with some historical context. Hall voters have done so in the past. The earned-run averages of modern pitchers aren’t compared to those from the game’s “dead-ball” era, when home runs were rare. The statistics of players whose careers were interrupted by their military service, or those who spent years locked out of baseball by its color barrier, have appropriately been given special consideration.

John put up his stats as a player and a pioneer. No one had ever done what he did. He had no template to work from as he spent the latter half of 1974 and all of 1975 trying to recover from the strange, unprecedented repairs in his left arm. His task wasn’t just to regain the ability to carry groceries and change an overhead lightbulb. John needed to recapture the strength to get major-league batters out, just as he’d done for 12 seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1963 to ’74.

By the time he felt healed from his ligament transplant and ready, John was closing in on his 33rd birthday. He’d missed one and a half seasons in the prime of his career.

Now, with those circumstances understood, consider his statistics.

John pitched 288 victories, the seventh-highest total in history for a lefty and 26th best overall. Every pitcher with more victories is already in the Hall, except for recent retirees Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson. Those victories, coupled with his solid 3.34 earned-run average, merit induction alone. Yet skeptics discount John’s win total, insisting it is mostly a product of his longevity and that John was never dominant. (Sinkerball pitchers don’t dominate; they frustrate.) Those skeptics are seeing raw numbers with no context. John pitched the last four of his 26 seasons — yes, 26 — in the starting rotation of the New York Yankees. George Steinbrenner would not tolerate hangers-on. John went 13-6 in 1987 at age 44. At 45, he pitched 176 innings for the Yankees.

Look again at that win total. Notice that 164 of John’s victories came after his landmark surgery, one fewer than Sandy Koufax’s entire career total. John finished 10-10 with a sharp 3.09 ERA in 1976, his first season back with Los Angeles. Then, in the following four seasons, he delivered Exhibit A of his Hall-of-Fame credentials. In that span, John won 20 or more games three times. Twice, he was the Cy Young Award runner-up, once in the National League with the Dodgers and once in the American League with the Yankees. Over those four seasons with L.A. and New York, his combined record was 80-35 with a 3.11 ERA, and he posted a 2-1 mark in two World Series.

Had John reached the 300-win plateau, there would be no argument. It equals automatic Hall induction. Every pitcher in the 300 club, except those recent retirees, is enshrined. Remember, John missed one and a half seasons in the heart of his career to undergo that then-uncertain surgery. His “what-ifs” are countless, starting with, “What if his left elbow never blew up in 1974?” John might have notched those missing 12 victories in just the second half of that season; he was 13-3 before the injury.

Forget the what-ifs, though. Consider the Hall of Fame voting criteria, “based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the team[s] on which he played.”

Tommy John should be a Hall of Famer.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or


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