Think about how lucky we are that the pitcher who did the experimental arm surgery was named Tommy John. It is a fun, friendly sort of name. As ominous as Tommy John surgery is to a pitcher, having two soft first names for its title helps ease the pain.
Imagine if Al Hrabosky did it. Or picture Win Remmerswaal going through the procedure first. How would that change our vernacular? “Looks like Stephen Strasburg needs a Hrabosky.” “Matt Harvey is getting a second opinion before going through his Remmerswaal.”
But Tommy John falls off the tongue.
And yes, there was a Tommy John, just like there was a Cy Young and a Walt Disney. His name has grown into a separate term that sometimes it is hard to remember that the arm people think about in terms of Tommy John surgery belonged to a very talented pitcher.
The Terre Haute Indiana native was signed as an amateur free agent in 1961 by the Indians. That was not only before the draft, but it was the first year of expansion. He made his debut in 1963 as a 20 year old in an era where Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were still on the Yankees and Carl Yastrzemski was still a young green player.
He did not make much of a mark on the 1963 and 1964 Indians when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in a convoluted three team deal. In Chicago he became an All Star. Regularly keeping his ERA in the high 2’s and low 3’s, he led the AL in shutouts in 1966 and 1967, the year the White Sox narrowly missed the AL Pennant. He represented the White Sox in the 1968 All Star Game.
After the 1971 season, he was involved in a trade that changed the destiny of two players who have a compelling Hall of Fame case.
Dick Allen, reviving his career with the Dodgers was swapped to the White Sox for Tommy John. Allen became a superstar and built a career that brought him to within one Veteran’s Committee vote to Cooperstown.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, John became a consistent winner. He led the league in winning percentage in 1973 and 1974 all the while eating up innings and throwing to pinpoint control.
His soft sinking pitches caused most hitters to ground out to the infield, which was ideal in L.A. The Dodgers were building a great team from within as Garvey, Lopes, Cey and Russell were forming one of the great infields of all time.
But in the middle of the 1974 season, one of the best of his career, he damaged his ulnar collateral ligament. And yes I had to look that up.
With the Dodgers en route to the World Series that year, they would do so without John, whose career was in danger of ending. But along with the All Star infield, there were two other names that he would be associated with while with the Dodgers.
Dr. Frank Jobe was a surgeon who decided to use Tommy John’s arm as a medical laboratory. He took a tendon from his left arm and replaced the damaged ligament in his left arm. It was a gamble to save his career. Tommy John had pitched for 12 years and was 31 years old. Reasonable people would have thought he should call it a career.
He sat out the 1975 season recovering. But in 1976, he rejoined the Dodgers. He threw 207 innings to a 3.09 ERA. The baseball community saw it as a medical miracle. Another name in LA that helped was former Cy Young winner and future doctor Mike Marshall, who contributed to his rehab.
After his comeback in 1976, he topped it in 1977. He won 20 games for the NL Champs, throwing 220 1/3 innings and was the runner up in the Cy Young vote. In Game 4 of the 1977 NLCS, he threw a complete game victory to clinch the pennant for the Dodgers.
Now no longer the name of a surgery, Tommy John was a consistent 20 game winner. For the 1979 season, he signed with the Yankees where he was the Cy Young runner up and a 20 game winner again. In 1980 and 1981, he helped the Yankees into the playoffs, losing to Los Angeles in the 1981 World Series.
He continued to pitch into the 1980s, throwing in the 1982 ALCS with the Angels and making a cameo in Oakland for when this 1986 Topps Card was issued. (Truthfully, this card is the only memory I have of his days in Oakland.)
He returned to the Yankees in 1986 and won 13 games in 1987 and 9 in 1988 at age 45. His arm held up the whole way.
By the time he pitched in his final season, 1989, Ken Griffey Jr, Barry Bonds and Roberto Alomar were all major leaguers, long after Tommy John faced their fathers in the bigs.
He finished with 288 career wins. One more win every other year of his 26 seasons in the big leagues would have given him 301 total for his career and he would have been in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Instead he sat on the ballot for 15 years, never getting more than 31.7% of the vote.
Tommy John has one of the most famous names in baseball. And even though it is the sound of dread for pitchers who might lose an entire season, it should be one of hope. After his career was all but over, he pitched for 14 more years and had his best seasons.
Perhaps he belongs in the Hall of Fame as a pioneer.