Dr. Frank Jobe never played an inning of professional baseball. Nevertheless, his effect on the game is enormous. The Baseball Hall of Fame honored him in 2013 at its annual induction ceremonies. Dr. Jobe performed ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction surgery on Major-League pitcher Tommy John’s elbow in 1974. The procedure re-attaches the two arm bones at the elbow that have come apart from overuse. As the baseball season winds down and you get ready for playoff and World Series excitement, there is a one-in-three chance the pitcher you’re rooting for or against has undergone Tommy John surgery.
Tommy John had played eleven seasons with the White Sox and the Dodgers. After surgery, he was named Comeback Player of the Year in 1976. He played fifteen more years with the Dodgers and Yankees, was named to the All-Star team three more times and won 288 games. The surgery that has resurrected many a pitcher’s career became known by his name.
Major-League pitchers throw fewer innings than in John’s day, have longer rests between starts and rarely pitch a complete nine-inning game. It’s not likely we’ll ever again see a pitcher reach benchmark numbers of 300 strikeouts or 300 innings pitched in a season or record 300 – or 288 – wins in a career. Yet Tommy John’s eponymous surgery is common. Big leaguers and amateurs alike proudly show their scars on their pitching arms. The human arm is not designed for throwing baseballs overhand, especially breaking balls.
These days, more than half of the surgeries are performed on athletes younger than nineteen years. Youth sports are big business and kids are pressured to commit to one sport and play it year-round to the exclusion of others. The number of UCL surgeries on young elbows has increased every year for the past two decades. The reason: too many curve balls thrown too young with little, if any, rest between seasons.
And what does Tommy John say about this?
“What does bother me is that my name is now attached to something that affects more children than pro athletes. I was in my 30s and playing major league ball for nearly a dozen years before needing the operation. It’s hard seeing so many kids being pushed the way they are today, and getting hurt as a result.”