RIP: Dr. Frank Jobe, father of Tommy John surgery (1926-2014)
It was 1974, in the middle of July, when a Los Angeles Dodgers ace pitcher was mowing down Les Expos. In the top of the third inning, something went awry — two wild pitches and a loud snap that would be later called “something that sounded like a collision.”
The ace pitcher immediately walked off the mound and the Dodgers physician went to check on his baseball player. The team doctor was Dr. Frank Jobe and that pitcher was Tommy John, winner of 124 games up to this point. In the clubhouse, the two had a conversation that is rumored to have gone something like this:
John: “I can’t stop playing baseball. If you have any tricks, I’m game. I’ll do anything.”
Jobe: “Anything? Because I have an idea.”
The rest is history, only it had to wait until halfway through the 1976 season to be discovered.
You have to know when something snapped in a pitcher’s elbow back in the ’70s, that was the end of a career. You didn’t come back from that. According to a great obituary/story by the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Jobe became the orthopedic doctor of the Dodgers in 1968.
Who knew he had this zany idea to take a tendon from a good arm and make this figure-eight weave around a bad elbow that could extend a pitcher’s career by a decade? Or more.
Tommy John took 18 months of rehab and then pitched for 13 more seasons, retiring with a .555 winning percentage and a salty 3.34 ERA. His arm literally was back from the dead because of an idea, a good-hearted doctor and a love for the game.
Jobe had to have passion for baseball to understand how a pitcher’s elbow moved, how that movement would snap a tendon like a twig in the winter and how to prevent that from happening again. The surgical procedure that changed baseball history is technically called “the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction while using the palmaris longus tendon.” Any more questions why it’s named after that Tommy John guy?
Dr. Jobe’s survivors include his wife, Beverly; his sons, Christopher, Meredith, Cameron and Blair; and eight grandchildren. He was 88 and will forever be loved by baseball.