News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 8, 2014

The legend’s speech: Baseball icon Tommy John speaks when he couldn’t before

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Wearing a black cap and gown and gold valedictorian sash, former Major League baseball pitcher Tommy John Jr. stood before a Hulman Center crowd Sunday and delivered a commencement speech.

Valedictorian of the Gerstmeyer High School Class of 1961, he wasn’t allowed to deliver the valedictory address at his graduation because he stuttered.

Fifty-three years later, Vigo County Schools Superintendent Danny Tanoos extended an invitation to the baseball legend to return to his hometown and give that address during the Terre Haute North Vigo High School commencement program.

Prior to its delivery, John told Terre Haute media, “I’m honored to come back home and give the graduation talk I never gave in 1961. … I hope the students can stay awake long enough to listen to it.”

Just as he had promised, he kept his talk “short and sweet,” but meaningful.

In an introduction, Tanoos pointed to John’s many accomplishments in high school as a top-notch student, leader and athlete; he had been president of student council, vice president of Key Club and a member of the National Honor Society.

He also pointed to John’s successful career as a professional baseball player with the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and California Angels.

As John began his address, he told students that when he sat where they sat in 1961, he couldn’t wait for the graduation program to end because he had a baseball career ahead of him.

Two weeks after graduation, he signed a professional contract. “I did not go to college and everybody was aghast that I was going to go straight to hell,” he said, prompting laughter from his audience. But he had wanted to play baseball ever since he was a child.

He told the North graduates what his dad once told him as he got on an airplane for his first assignment in Dubuque, Iowa.

His dad said:

“Tom, no matter what you do in baseball, you may play a month and get released. You may play for 10 years. … Just remember one thing — of who you are and where you come from. You’ll always be Tommy John from Terre Haute, Indiana.”

John said if he ever gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame, “and I sincerely hope I do,” he will still always remain Tommy John from Terre Haute.

He said he wants to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame “not so much for me, but it would be the biggest honor I could give my dad.”

He also told students to have a roadmap and to know where they are going in life, but to expect detours on the road to success.

John talked about the detour in his life in 1974 when he tore a ligament in his elbow.  “The doctors told me I would not pitch again  and I had to have this revolutionary surgery,” he recounted.

As he went through rehab, he received some advice from John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach. Wooden told him, “Tommy, I tell my basketball players we gain strength through adversity. … You’ve got to have adversity in your life to be a tougher, stronger person.”

Wooden also told John, “I wholeheartedly believe you will be a much better pitcher, a much better person, with what you’re going through now.”

John went how to say “how true those words are.”

He returned to his professional career and didn’t retire until 1989; he won 164 games after his surgery.

John told the North Vigo Class of 2014, “You’re going to be on this road to success, and there are going to be roadblocks. Don’t let that roadblock stop you. Find a way around it, find a way over it, and if you can’t do that, get your shovel out and dig under it and get to the other side and keep on going down the road.”

He also told them, “You can be as successful as you want to be, or you can be as lackluster as you want to be.” Success is up to each individual, and success is a habit, he said. Periodically, he told graduates, they may have to reshuffle the cards and start all over.

But no matter what happens on their road to success, he said, “Remember, you’re from Terre Haute, Indiana, and you graduated from North Vigo High School.”

When he met with reporters prior to commencement, he was asked how his parents might have reacted to his giving a valedictory speech.

“My dad’s buttons on his shirt would be popping off because his chest would be popping out,” John said. “My mom would sit there and be smiling, as she did all the time.”

Just after he met with reporters, he signed his autograph and penned a message on a baseball that read: To Zac: God Bless You. “Never give up.”

The baseball will go to Zachary Holland, a military veteran from southern Indiana who was seriously injured in 2009 in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb exploded. The explosion killed two of his best friends, broke many bones and resulted in the amputation of one of his feet; he spent two years in rehab. Holland also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

Holland’s father reached out to John and wanted John to write a letter to help inspire his son. Since John was coming to Terre Haute, Tanoos and John’s agent, Kim Berger, arranged for Zac to meet John in Terre Haute.

Zac was unable to come to Terre Haute, but he will receive the autographed baseball. Berger said she has made efforts to get Zac  involved with the adaptive sports community. “I’m really glad we get to help in some small way, in gratitude for what he has given to us,” Berger said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.