by Jim Riggs
February 23, 2002
Famous For Pitching And Surgery
And that's 26 seasons with an entire one lost because of an injury.
That lost season was 1975 after he suffered a ruptured ligament in his throwing elbow in a game on July 13, 1974. On Sept. 25 of that year, a revolutionary surgical procedure involved taking a tendon from his right forearm and using it to replace the ligament in his left elbow.
That procedure is now known as "Tommy John Surgery."
After the surgery, John pitched for 14 more seasons and in his second season back with the Dodgers he won 20 games.
Looking back, John knows why the surgery was required.
"I first hurt my elbow when I was 13 going from (pitching) 46 feet to 60 feet and (later) I had, probably in the course of three or four years, 40 steroid injections in my elbow because back in those days your job was to pitch," John said Monday afternoon before speaking at the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. "I kept doing it and what happened is those steroids made that ligament so brittle that there was one pitch, one time, and it just went boom."
When it went boom, John didn't know the seriousness.
"It never entered my mind that I'd thrown my last pitch," the left-hander recalled. "I just thought it was a simple injury that there was an explanation for it down the road. Never did I think there would have to be radical surgery."
The pitch was to Montreal's Hal Breeden with a man on first, so John needed a double play. "I tried to tip over the ball and throw a sinker and right when I threw it I just felt that thing go pop," he recalled. "It felt like my elbow came apart."
John threw one more pitch, felt the pain again and called time. He walked off the mound and told Manager Walt Alston to bring in another pitcher.
Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed the soon-to-be-famous surgery, discovered John had torn a ligament and he suggested a tendon transfer. Tendon transfers had been done in hands and wrists, but John explained, "It had never been done on the elbow of a premier pitcher."
However, that is what Dr. Jobe wanted to do.
"When Dr. Jobe told me what he was going to do, I said, "Let's get it done because I wanted to pitch again," said John, who had a 13-3 record at the time of the injury. "So I went in and had it done and when I came out I said, "What are my chances?"
Dr. Jobe told him, "Probably one or two chances in a hundred at best. You'll be able to throw again, but throwing to get batters out is something else."
John proved he was something else.
"The thing that I'm the most proud of that I've done in baseball is after that surgery I never missed a start in 13 years because of my elbow," he said.
His first "pitching" was four months after the surgery when he lobbed a ball from 30 or 40 feet to his wife. When he was able to throw harder, John recruited his neighbor to be his catcher.
"I was just an afterthought," John said about his rehabilitation. "Nobody ever thought I'd ever come back."
The rehabilitation continued through 1975 and on Sept. 26, one year and one day after the surgery, John pitched successfully in an instructional league game in Arizona and went on to start six or seven more times.
He experienced more painless pitching the next year in spring training. However, after his first start of the 1976 season, in which John allowed three runs in five innings, the Dodgers weren't convinced their left-hander would make it back. He was told he would have one more start as an evaluation and if it was a poor performance, he might be cut.
"Cut me and I'll be in Cincinnati so fast it will make your head spin," John told Alston.
In that next start at the Astrodome, John pitched seven innings and allowed two hits and no runs.
He was not cut, but instead compiled a 10-10 record and was named the National League's Comeback, Player of the Year. The next season he was 20-7 and then 17-10 in 1978, and in those last two seasons he pitched for Los Angeles in the World Series.
However, the Dodgers still weren't sold on John's surgery, which has now been performed more than 3,000 times. He was a free agent after the 1978 season and wanted to re-sign with Los Angeles, but with a three-year contract. However, General Manager Al Campanis didn't think his arm would last that long.
They released him and John went on to pitch 11 more seasons with the Yankees, Angels, Athletics and then the Yankees again. His final release came from the Yankees in 1989.
"The saddest day of my life was the day they told me they were letting me go, which was the last day of May in '89," John said. "And the happiest day of my life was that next morning. I woke up and I said, "Son of a gun, I don't have to go over the bridge any more."
Then he explained about the "bridge."
"I would have loved to have been able to pitch on my terms which was only going to the ballpark on the days I pitched," he said. "If I could have done that I would have lasted two to three more years because I could have stayed in shape throwing batting practice to my kids and to their teams. But you had to go over the George Washington Bridge at 3:30 (p.m.) to beat the traffic (to Yankee Stadium) and go there and do all the stuff, stand out in the outfield for batting practice, and it just got to be labor-some."
And he wasn't willing to put up with the labor of staying in shape.
"Actually I probably should have pitched longer, but I'll tell you what got me," he said. "My family was getting older and I had more things to do with my time than going to the gym and working out. If I had been as dedicated as I was earlier in '74, '75 and '76 when I was coming back (from surgery), if I would have worked out like that during the years of '87, '88, '89... But my kids were doing things and I just said, "Do I want to go work out?" and I blew the workouts. There were other things that started being more important than baseball."
However, baseball is still important to John, who ranks 17th in innings pitched (4,708), 21st in wins (288) and 22nd in games pitched (760) in major league history. He lives in Charlotte, N.C., and does color for the radio broadcasts of the Charlotte Knights of the Triple-A International League. That keeps him close to the game, but he would like to get closer by serving as a minor league coach, so he's been shopping around.
The name Tommy John can't hurt when looking for a position, but that name will never be associated only with pitching.
Recently he was at a baseball function in New Orleans and a young man stopped and said, "I just want to thank you for having that surgery because I had it done and I'm throwing the ball better than I ever have."
Of course that procedure was "Tommy John Surgery."