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A look back at Tommy John (the player and procedure)

A look back at Tommy John (the player and procedure)

I’m a big fan of San Francisco Giant Brian Wilson (I’ve got a “Brian Wilson frozen in carbonite” statue sitting on my desk to prove it), so when I heard last week that the injured pitcher would need Tommy John surgery I was more than a little bummed. I did know that Tommy John is no longer synomous with “career-ending” (Wilson could be back on the mound in 12-15 months), but what I didn’t know – until this morning – is the history behind the procedure and the man for whom it’s named.

A CNN article provides a detailed look at Tommy John (medically known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery), and offers a look back to July 1974, after the player John felt a “searing pain” in his elbow while pitching a game:

Dr. Frank Jobe was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ orthopedic surgeon and a good friend of John’s. After several examinations, Jobe gave the pitcher grim news: if he didn’t have surgery, he would never play major league baseball again. For John, the notion was unthinkable. And while he trusted Jobe and considered him a friend, the surgery had never been attempted by a medical professional.

“He told me what he was going to do,” John recalled, “He said, if you’ve pulled it off the bone, then what we’ll do is just reattach it to the bone and it will be no problem. But if it’s not, I’m going to have to take this tendon from your right forearm and graft it into your left elbow.”

John, a college math major, asked his surgeon friend for the odds of a successful outcome. Jobe put the odds at 1%.

“Well, I was valedictorian of my high school class and 1% or 2% in 100 is far better than zero percent in 100,” he said.

The article details what happened with John (I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t know) and also reveals what the former player thinks about having his name attached to “such a high-profile medical procedure:”

“If I’d known you could throw a perfect game with this, I would have tried a little harder,” quipped John, now 68. When he refers to the operation, without hesitation, he calls it Tommy John surgery, saying it’s an honor to have the operation referred to by his name.

Photo by StuSeeger

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