Changing the game

John, famous for the surgery that bears his name, was All-Star hurler

November 04, 2013
2014 Expansion Era candidate Tommy John. (NBHOF Library)

His name has become part of the sports lexicon, thanks to a surgery he helped pioneer.

But lost in the medical definitions and comeback stories is the pitching career Tommy John fashioned for nearly three decades. And it’s that career that has led him to the edge of immortality in Cooperstown.

John, who played for the Indians, White Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Angels and A’s during 26 big league seasons, is one of 12 finalists on this year’s Expansion Era ballot that will be considered by the committee on managers, umpires, executives and long-retired players at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The 16-person committee will vote on Dec. 8 at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla., and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 9.

The 12 candidates on the Expansion Era Committee ballot are: Dave Concepcion, Bobby Cox, Steve Garvey, Tony La Russa, Billy Martin, Marvin Miller, Dave Parker, Dan Quisenberry, Ted Simmons, George Steinbrenner, Joe Torre and John. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2014.

The Committee consists of Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Carlton Fisk, Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda, Joe Morgan, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro and Frank Robinson; executives Paul Beeston, Andy MacPhail, David Montgomery and Jerry Reinsdorf; and media members Steve Hirdt, Bruce Jenkins, Jack O’Connell and Jim Reeves.

John, born May 22, 1943, in Terre Haute, Ind., was signed by the Cleveland Indians as an amateur free agent in 1961 and made his big league debut two years later. After going 2-9 as a part-time starter for the Tribe in 1964, John was traded to the White Sox as part of a three-team deal that brought beloved outfielder Rocky Colavito back to Cleveland.

The White Sox, however, quickly realized dividends from the deal when John went 14-7 in 1965. He led the American League in shutouts in both 1966 and 1967, then made his first All-Star team in 1968. But John endured three straight losing campaigns before being sent to the Dodgers for Dick Allen prior to the 1972 season.

In Los Angeles, John went 11-5 in 1972 and 16-7 in 1973. The following year, the lefty was 13-3 with a 2.59 earned-run average in his first 22 starts. But in the 23rd start – on July 17 against the Expos at Dodger Stadium – John’s life changed forever.

“I threw it, boom!” John said. “I felt this pain, and the ball blooped to the plate. But I felt OK, so I took another throw – boom! Same pain.”

John took himself out of the contest and immediately found Frank Jobe, the Dodgers’ team doctor who was at the game. Jobe suspected John had torn the ulna collateral ligament in his left elbow – a diagnosis that, if true, meant the end of John’s playing career.

“Jobe said I’d be fine, I could throw batting practice for my kids,” John said. “But that I wouldn’t be able to pitch in the major leagues. But I wanted to play baseball again.”

Jobe recommended a radical procedure – virtually untested – where a tendon from John’s right forearm was put in place of the damaged UCL in John’s left elbow.

“It was the only thing we could come up with that left open even a remote possibility of Tommy’s return to baseball,” Jobe said. “On a scale of one to 10, Tommy’s chances of ever pitching again were less than one.”

After missing all of the 1975 season while rehabbing, John beat the odds and returned to the Dodgers in 1976 – going 10-10 with a 3.09 ERA and winning the Fred Hutchinson Award for overcoming adversity.

In 1977, John finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting after going 20-7 with a 2.78 ERA while leading the Dodgers to the NL pennant. After another 17 wins and his second All-Star Game selection in 1978, John went to the Yankees via free agency.

Over the next two seasons, John won 43 games and was named to two more All-Star teams.

He pitched nine more seasons for the Yankees, Angels and A’s, finishing his career after the 1989 season with a record of 288-231 and a 3.34 ERA. His 700 career starts rank eighth on the all-time list, and his 4,710.1 innings rank 20th.

No modern pitcher eligible for Hall of Fame election has more victories. Of those 288 wins, more than half – 164 – came after the procedure now called “Tommy John Surgery.”

“The thing I’m most proud of,” said John, “is in the 13 years after (the surgery), I never missed a start.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum