The sports world lost an icon and a legend on Thursday. Frank Jobe, a special advisor to the Los Angeles Dodgers, passed away at the age of 88. Though he was a team physician for many years and helped several players recover from major injuries, he is best known as the first physician to do a Tommy John Surgery. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this surgery would change sports forever. Frank Jobe became better known after it as the man who saved Baseball.
The year was 1974, and a pitcher named Tommy John had a severe elbow injury. This type of injury had ended many a major league player’s career. Dr. Jobe had an idea of how he could possibly fix John’s problem. It was a long shot, and very risky, but John was a 31-year-old pitcher without any other options. He agreed to undergo the procedure, and the world was forever changed.
Tommy John Surgery is known medically as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (UCL). The procedure involves opening up the patient’s elbow area and drilling in to their humerus and ulna bones. This makes room for a new, borrowed tendon to be grafted on. The tendon often comes from another part of the patient’s body, most likely the back of the knee. It is woven through the newly drilled holes in a figure eight pattern then anchored in place. Full recovery for a patient takes roughly a year for pitchers, and half that time for other position players.
Back in 1974, Dr. Jobe gave Tommy John a one percent chance of a full recovery. Jobe made no promises that he could save John’s baseball career, but at least he gave him some hope. He was unable to pitch at all during the 1975 season, but came back in 1976 ready to see if the procedure would actually work. He was 33 at the time and had been in the majors for barely a decade, winning only 124 games. John did not retire until 1989, a full 13 years later. In that span the rejuvenated pitcher racked up a total of 164 wins, as he pitched well in to his forties with better than average success.
The UCL surgery performed by Dr. Jobe was a resounding success for Tommy John. So much, in fact, that his name will forever be linked to the procedure. Since 1974, dozens of major league players have gone through Tommy John Surgery, and come out the other side to have long, successful careers. Jamie Moyer, the ageless wonder, pitched until he was almost 50 thanks to a successful procedure. John Lackey, AJ Burnett, Eric Gagne, Ben Sheets, Stephen Strasburg, Adam Wainwright, and Brian Wilson are just a few of the big name players that have gone on to have successful careers after having the procedure done. Patients now have an 85 to 92 percent chance of a full recovery from Tommy John Surgery.
Without Dr. Frank Jobe, many of the players we know and love would never have made the careers they have. Fans and players alike have experienced joy and happiness thanks to this groundbreaking procedure. Without it, many of the moments etched forever in baseball lore might never have happened. Baseball lovers everywhere owe Dr. Frank Jobe a huge thank you, because he is the man who saved baseball.
Commentary by Chris Chisam