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Tommy John and His Surgery   

May 31, 2014

by William Szczepanek

1966 topps tommy john #465 It’s odd that someone who was very good at their craft would be known more for a durgical operation performed on them than their accomplishments over more than a quarter of a century. Tommy John began his baseball career as a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians in 1963. He then played for the White Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Angels, the A’s and then back with the Yankees to complete his career.

Tommy John had a career 288 wins with 231 losses and a lifetime 3.34 ERA. His career spanned 27 years with 26 of them a pitcher and 1 famous year when he underwent a new form of surgery whitch now bears his name. John broke into the majors at age 20 and pitched until he was 46. John’s 26-year career as a pitcher is second in duration to Nolan Ryan.

While pitching for the Dodgers Tommy John injured his arm badly. He elected surgery and had about a 1 in 100 chance of pitching again. On September 25, 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe, determined during surgery that there was nothing left to repair in John’s arm. The ligament had deteriorated. John’s medial collateral ligament of the elbow was completely ruptured. Dr. Jobe would use a ligament from the tendon of John’s right wrist to repair the left elbow. Now John had two arms that didn’t work. In addition, the surgery had damaged the ulnar nerve, turning John’s left hand into a useless claw with no feeling in his fingers. On December 15 another operation was performed to reroute the nerve through the elbow which was a success and sent John into a year of intense rehab. Few people, including John, thought he would pitch again.

tommy johnJohn would not only pitch again, but would pitch for 14 more seasons, including consecutive seasons for the Dodgers and Yankees of 20-7, 17-10, 21-9 and 22-9 — not bad for a pitcher with a rebuilt arm. If his numbers, as yet, don’t qualify him for the Hall of Fame then his ability to overcome adversity certainly makes him one of the elite to ever play the game.

The Bionic Man

Today, the operation is common and recovery rates are high. The cause of injury requiring the surgery is thought to come from overuse, hence pitch counts are now a big part of the game. But, in the past there also have been pitchers who could pitch every other day and still be effective. So where are we going with this? It appears that more and more pitchers are opting for the operation to improve arm reliability and lessen the chance for future injury. Some pitchers relate that they feel stronger. At what point does the surgery become an enhancement that gives someone an unfair advantage?

tommy john surgery graph

As we can see Tommy John surgery has become more prevalent in recent times with 90% of all surgeries ever performed occurring after the year 2000. 2014 may set the record for most surgeries in a year. The real question is why? Jon Roegele’s article captures the facts.

tommy john surgeries by team

We have more pitchers throwing faster,and more often, than ever before. Strikeouts per nine innings are up considerably over the last few years. Sliders may be the pitch that cause the most damage and more batters than ever are fooled by the pitch. Many times in the not too distant past a sore arm would be relieved with some rest, now players are jumping on the surgery bandwagon.
I would expect that with the increases in medical technology and overall knowledge of sports medicine that taking tendons from a leg and putting them in an arm would become relatively routine, but can you still call the arm an arm or would it be something else?

Something just seems to be wrong, but I can’t quite put a tag on it. There are those Hall of Fame pitchers like Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux who seemed to throw effortlessly. They could pitch nine innings start after start and not be bothered. Then there was Nolan Ryan who could power pitch an entire game. One common thing about these pitchers was that they had a fluid delivery that enabled them to use their entire body to deliver the pitch. Sandy Koufax had that fluidity, but it always appeared that he extended it beyond what was a normal delivery. That made him super for a while and then his arm gave out. Hoyt Wilhelm was a knuckballer who could pitch day after day with no ill effects.

It’s a Different Game

The game has changed, and for better or worse, it will continue to change. Players are stronger and make incredible plays each week that make the highlight reels. What makes me smile and feel good inside is that Willie Mays would have made those plays look easy.

Tommy John was a successful pitcher whose fastball was registered at 85 to 87 mph. He could make batters look silly with curves and off-speed stuff. He also pitched during a time when, if batters dug in, they would often be on the ground eating dust on the next pitch. You don’t see that much anymore. Baseball players are now a commodity and it is no longer a game, as much as it is a business. And we continue to suck it all up, because we want it to still be a game.

Tommy John surgery, once a good thing, is now out of hand.


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