Baseball 101 is an ongoing series from The Good Phight’s Allie Foster that breaks down some of the multifaceted aspects of baseball for those fans who might not be as familiar with the ins and outs of the game. In this third edition, she explains the history of Tommy John surgery. You can read other entries here.
Located on the inside of your elbow is a triangular ligament called the Ulnar Collateral Ligament, or the UCL. The UCL is an important structure in the elbow, especially in pitchers, because it is the primary ligament in charge of stabilizing the elbow. When it is torn, it’s a significant injury that requires surgical repair and about a year of rehabilitation.
Thomas Edward John, Jr. made his major league debut in 1963 with the Cleveland Indians. The southpaw was just twenty years old. After two years with the Indians, he joined the Chicago White Sox until a trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972.
During that period of time, he wasn’t known as a stand-out pitching star. His fastball was sub-par, but he had a good curveball that helped him win games. Being traded to the Dodgers revitalized his career, specifically working with pitching coach Red Adams who took advantage of the movement in John’s fastball. In his first season with the Dodgers, he posted an 11-5 record and 2.89 ERA in 29 starts until a late September injury ended his season.
By the 1974 season, John had turned into one of the top pitchers in the league. In his first 22 starts of the year, he posted a 13-3 record with a 2.59 ERA. But is entire season—and career—changed on July 17, 1974. While pitching to Montreal Expos first basemen Hal Breeden, John’s ulnar collateral ligament completely ruptured.
What’s important to note is that, at the time, baseball players didn’t opt to undergo any upper extremity surgeries. It was considered a kiss of death, almost, to their careers. Instead, they would try other remedies that would treat the symptoms, but not the underlying cause.
So, after a month of alternate treatments and rest without any progress, team physician Dr. Frank Jobe suggested something crazy: He’d take a graft of another tendon within John’s body and use it to replace the ruptured UCL. Without the surgery, he said, John had absolutely no chance at ever playing in the majors again. With it? He had a 1 in 100 chance. On September 25, 1974, Jobe took a tendon out of John’s right wrist and transplanted it to his left elbow.
Recovery for Tommy John wasn’t easy. During the process, the ulnar nerve in John’s left elbow was damaged, leaving him with no feeling or movement in two of his fingers. But John persisted. By June 1975, he was able to move all five fingers in his hand and three months later he was throwing in an exhibition game. He returned to the Dodgers starting rotation the following season, posting a respectable 10-10 record and a 3.09 ERA in 31 games.
His 1977 season was even more spectacular, as he went 20-7 with a 2.78 ERA. He topped it off with a complete game win in the NLCS to clinch the pennant and send the Dodgers to the World Series. He was rewarded for his season with a second-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting and continued to play until finally retiring after the 1989 season, an astounding 26-year career.
Tommy John’s success was important because for the first time in history, a pitcher underwent an extreme surgery to repair an arm injury and returned to the game even better than he was before. Because of that, his name has forever been linked to the operation we now know as “Tommy John surgery.”
An estimated 450+ MLB players have undergone this operation, which takes about 12-16 months of rehabilitation before returning to game action. This number continues to go up as more players get it each year. In 2016, 15 MLB players had the surgery. That number increased to 19 in 2017 and 26 in 2018. Los Angeles Angels superstar pitcher Shohei Ohtani is the most recognizable name currently recovering from the surgery, and Milwaukee Brewers closer Corey Knebel is the most recent. His surgery was on April 3rd. Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez also underwent Tommy John surgery last month.
Is there something within baseball that you want to know more about? Leave a comment below or tell Allie on Twitter (@mustang__sallie) and the next Baseball 101 may answer your questions!