News From Terre Haute, Indiana

From the Press Box

July 21, 2010

From the Press Box: Tommy John has a blast on his return to Wabash Valley

TERRE HAUTE — There have been several Terre Haute natives who made a lasting mark in Major League Baseball. The list includes Hall of Famer Max Carey, Art Nehf, and more recently, current Terre Haute Rex manager Brian Dorsett.

But when it comes to Hautean pitchers, there’s no list to look down when it comes to Tommy John, because he tops it.

The southpaw won 288 games in a 26-year career that spanned the John F. Kennedy to George H. Bush administrations. A career made all the more remarkable by the fact he won 164 games after the landmark ligament surgery that saved his career in the mid 1970s and which is now famously named after him.

John played in three World Series, four All-Star Games and was also the ace on near-miss pennant winners like the 1967 Chicago White Sox and the 1982

California Angels.

But for all of his career accomplishments, John was just as excited about baseball’s present in Terre Haute as he met, greeted and signed autographs for a large group of fans at Bob Warn Field on Wednesday before and during the Rex game against Dupage.

It was the first time John, 67, has attended a baseball game at Bob Warn Field, in either its current or former configuration. John was excited about that, but he is a big proponent of summer collegiate baseball leagues, so he was thrilled that his hometown is able to host a franchise.

“I’m a huge fan of college summer leagues. There used to be only three or four of them. Now, they’re all over the country and they’re giving these kids a chance to play year round. These leagues are good for guys who need to get more at-bats and pitchers that pitch 20 or 30 innings for their college teams. These develop the players so well,” John said.

John talked to the Rex before the game. Given that he started 700 career games — eighth-best in Major League history — there could be no better person to speak to the Rex on the topic of work ethic.

“I told them that everyday they come to the ballpark, they need to work on one aspect of their game that will make them better. It doesn’t have to be a great leap, just do something better. If you’re a pitcher, work on spin, work on something. I told them all of the great infielders take 60 or 70 groundballs everyday,” said John, who worked with the Yankees when shortstop Derek Jeter began his career.

John is also glad to see organized baseball back in his hometown. John was 13 when the Terre Haute Huts disbanded in 1956, but he recalled going to games at Memorial Stadium with his family.

“My dad worked for public service. My mom, my sister and I would get on a bus on North 16th Street, ride down to 7th and Wabash, we’d transfer and take the east town bus to the stadium and go to the [Terre Haute] Phillie game. We’d go to the game and go meet my dad after work,” John said.

John signed a contract with Cleveland in 1961 shortly after he graduated from Gerstmeyer Tech after a stellar baseball and basketball career with the Black Cats. John made his Major League debut in 1963 with the Tribe playing two seasons in Cleveland. He was traded to the White Sox in a three-team deal in 1965. John played seven years with the White Sox, compiling an 82-80 record.

John became synonymous with the great ’70s Dodgers teams, winning 87 games from 1972-78, and was a also a Dodger when Dr. Frank Jobe performed career-prolonging surgery on John in 1974.

But John is arguably best-known as a New York Yankee. John played eight years in the Bronx, winning 91 games, the most he won for any of the six franchises he played for. John played in 1981 World Series for the Yankees and played the last four years of his career in pinstripes. Given that, John was obviously saddened when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner passed away on July 13.

Right from the start, John knew what he was in for playing for The Boss when he made his Yankee debut in 1979.

“I made my first start as a Yankee and we played the Brewers. [Ron] Guidry pitches Good Friday and gets beat. Eddie Figueroa pitches Saturday and gets beat. I’m pitching Easter Sunday,” John said.

“I go into the clubhouse and Steinbrenner’s coming out. He says, ‘This is why I got you. This is exactly why I got you. This is the most important game of the season!’ I said, ‘George, there’s another 159 after this one.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. This is it. You have to stop this losing streak.’

“I go out and my first five pitches as a Yankee were balls. People are booing, all this and that. Cecil Cooper got a groundball base hit to drive in a run, but then I shut them down for seven and [Rich] Gossage comes in and closes it down. We won 2-1.

“As I come out of the clubhouse, I see George and he says, ‘That’s why I got you!’” John recalled.

It was the start of an eight-year partnership on the field and one that lasted beyond John’s playing career.

“George liked the way I pitched, because I might win, I might not win, but he was going to get the best I had,” John said.

Steinbrenner wasn’t the only baseball owner of note John played for. John played for Walter O’Malley in Los Angeles and Gene Autry with California. John said that Autry had a vivid recollection of Terre Haute.

“Gene would fly with us and I’d sit him down and ask him to talk about the WLS Barn Dance. I asked him, ‘Did you ever come play in my hometown?’ He said, ‘Where’s that?’ I told him Terre Haute, Ind., and he’d say, ‘Ohh! Terre Haute! I used to play in the Grand Opry House [the Grand Theater],” John recalled.

John’s career spanned more than a quarter century and he is, unfortunately, one of the best players not to be chosen for the Baseball Hall of Fame. John has never forgotten that the journey to stardom began for him on the north side of Terre Haute.

“This is where it all started. My mom and dad signed me up for Spencer Rec League. I’d play there in the morning, then I’d grab my bicycle and ride down to Woodrow Wilson and I’d play down there. I’d ride my bicycle all over town to play baseball,” John said.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.

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