TERRE HAUTE —
Tommy John’s major league baseball career would have been 12 years rather than 26 had it not been for Frank Jobe, who died Thursday at 88 years old.
An immeasurable number of baseball players owe Jobe the same gratitude the Terre Haute native has displayed for Jobe since 1974. That’s when the orthopedic surgeon repaired John’s left ulnar collateral ligament, a procedure that has been known as Tommy John surgery.
One year and one day later, the 6-foot-3 southpaw was back on the mound in the big leagues and never had another elbow problem.
Jobe died in Santa Monica after being hospitalized recently with an undisclosed illness, the Associated Press reported according to a spokesman for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
John remembers vividly his conversations with Jobe after his injury.
“When I hurt my arm, they didn’t have MRIs so you didn’t really know what happened,” John said. “The only way you could tell that my elbow might have been injured, you had to hold my upper arm solid and move my lower arm back and forth and it just swung. So he said I think you’ve torn the ligament.”
Jobe told the lefty his plan, John recalled Friday afternoon from his home in upstate New York.
“If we’re lucky we’ll rest it for three to four weeks. If we’re lucky, it will heal. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to go to Plan B,” John said.
“I said ‘What’s that?’ He said ‘I don’t know yet.’”
Jobe’s “Plan B” turned out to be using a tendon from John’s forearm to repair his elbow.
“He said what he had in mind was this new surgery. He told me ‘If you don’t do it, your chances of playing again in the big leagues are zero’ ... I wanted to play so I said, let’s do it,” John said.
John and Jobe had become great friends prior to the surgery, John told the Tribune-Star.
“When he and I were talking about what’s going on, we had like a father and son talk. He was my friend first and a doctor for the Dodgers second. Friends don’t ‘bs’ friends. I knew if he told me that [I needed the surgery], it was in my best interest. And if it was in my best interest, then it would be in the Dodgers’ best interest,” John said.
Jobe’s career changed the game of baseball, allowing teams to keep pitchers on the mound despite the major injury.
“He changed the game, just like Jackie Robinson did,” John said. “Three people changed the game as we know it today. Marvin Miller, changing the free agency roles, and Frank Jobe, with the Tommy John surgery.”
Jobe spent 50 years with the Dodgers, performing hundreds of Tommy John surgeries on pitchers.
“I had no idea it would do this,” Jobe told the AP several years ago. “It startles me even today that it has done that. The doctors are recognizing the condition early enough to fix it and they are learning how to do the surgery so well. They rehab it so not just the arm, but the whole body gets better.”
The rehabilitation after surgery still takes about a year as big-league stars such as St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg have discovered. But they come back at full strength.
John, who won 288 games and compiled a total of 4,710 1/3 innings pitched in his career, said he was as good as new. The Terre Haute Gerstmeyer graduate went 10-10 with a 3.09 earned-run average in 1976 then won 20 games for the Dodgers in 1977 with a 2.78 ERA. He finished second in the Cy Young voting and 12th in the MVP voting that season.
Some pitchers say they even gain velocity after the surgery. That was the least of John’s concern.
“I was getting batters out, that’s all I knew,” John said. “Speed wasn’t that important back then. Then they got radar guns, and it gave people who didn’t know a thing about baseball a chance to act like they did. It’s the worst thing that ever happened to the game.”
The impact of the surgery affects the game of baseball at many levels.
Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs has seen many young players bounce back from torn ligaments to have successful pitching careers.
“You hear a lot of former big league players talk about the impact of Tommy John surgery. I read that 34 percent of major league pitchers have had the surgery so the impact is far reaching,” Hannahs said. “That’s just talking about major league guys, that doesn’t even begin to touch the number of guys in college or high school that have had the surgery and continued with their careers. I think Mr. Jobe has had as much impact on the game as anybody.”
The procedure allows college-aged pitchers to take the mound without anxiety or at least without the fear of suffering a career-ending elbow injury thanks to the Tommy John surgery.
“I think the biggest difference I’ve seen is there used to be such a fear that if you hurt your arm, you were done. Anymore, that’s not as prevalent. Guys have come back than prior to the injury. It’s eliminated a lot of the fears that young people had,” Hannahs said.