February 7, 2024
Dr. Frank Jobe’s Innovative and Pioneering Approach that Continues to Save MLB Careers
From “Dead Arm” to Comeback Kid: The Story of Tommy John Surgery
In baseball today, “Tommy John surgery” is likely as familiar to baseball fans as peanuts and Cracker Jack. With 2024 marking the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking procedure, it seems fitting to look back at what life was like for injured athletes before it – and how a single pitcher and the surgeon who treated him, revolutionized the way doctors around the world address throwing injuries in athletes at every level of play today.
The Shadow of “Dead Arm”
Before 1974, a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) – the ligament on the inside of the elbow that stabilizes it against the enormous forces put on the joint with each pitch – was a career-ending sentence for baseball pitchers. This injury, often called “dead arm,” was considered
irreparable, leaving countless talented players benched indefinitely. With multi-year contracts yet to exist in professional baseball, if a player got injured and could not heal, or his injury could not be repaired, that meant the end of his baseball career.
Imagine the heartbreak. Years of hard work and dedication, countless hours on the mound, and all it takes is one wrong pitch to shatter the dream. This was the harsh reality for Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, whose career was forever cut short by a UCL tear in 1966.
A Ray of Hope from an Unlikely Source
Enter Dr. Frank Jobe, a founder and partial namesake of the renowned Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, California, the (then) Los Angeles Dodgers team physician, and most importantly, a doctor with a passion for innovation. While experimenting with ligament reconstruction techniques on lab animal carcasses, Jobe saw a glimmer of hope for pitchers like Drysdale. He developed a procedure to replace the damaged UCL with a healthy tendon from another body part, essentially giving the elbow a fresh start.
The Day Tommy Took a Chance
In 1974, fate brought Dr. Jobe and Dodgers pitcher Tommy John together. John, 32 years old at the time and at the peak of his career, was facing the dreaded “dead arm” diagnosis. In a previous interview about Tommy John, it is reported that Dr. Jobe was frank with John about his prognosis and recovery prospects. He told John that his chance of pitching again was around 1 percent with this new and then-experimental procedure he had developed…but that his chances of not pitching again were 100 percent without it. With his future uncertain, John took a leap of faith and agreed to undergo the surgery.
The operation, performed on September 25, 1974, was successful, but the road to recovery was long and arduous. John spent nearly a year and a half in rehab, battling doubt and the grueling physical demands of rebuilding his pitching mechanics.
A Triumphant Return and a Legacy Forged
On April 16, 1976, Tommy John stepped back onto the mound at Fulton County Stadium in a game against the Atlanta Braves. The crowd’s roar was a testament to his perseverance and a symbol of hope for countless athletes facing similar injuries in the future. Not only did John return to that first game, but he also went on to pitch for another 14 seasons, winning 164 games and proving that “dead arm” was no longer a baseball career death sentence. Of his miraculous comeback, John was often referred to by other players and sports writers of the time as “The Bionic Man,” thanks largely to Dr. Jobe.
More Than Just a Surgery – a Lasting Legacy
The procedure Dr. Jobe performed on Tommy John wasn’t just a medical breakthrough; it was a literal game-changer. Tommy John surgery revolutionized how physicians approached throwing injuries and gave athletes a second chance at their dreams. Today, Tommy John surgery is commonplace, performed not only on baseball pitchers but also on athletes in other throwing sports like football, tennis, and even volleyball.
The story of Tommy John surgery is a testament to the power of human resilience and at that time the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic and now the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute’s unwavering pursuit of innovation to this day, as modeled and pioneered by Dr. Jobe and further refined by his understudies – the late great Dr. Lewis Yocum and the incomparable Dr. Neal ElAttrache. It’s a reminder that despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, there’s always a chance to rewrite history. That’s what legends are made of.
The Evolution of a Legend Continues
Sports medicine is constantly evolving, and Tommy John surgery is no exception. New techniques and technologies are emerging to improve the procedure, reduce recovery times, increase success rates, and minimize complications. While the core principles of the procedure remain the same, the future promises even brighter possibilities for injured athletes.
So next time you hear the term “Tommy John surgery,” remember the story of the pitcher who dared to defy the odds. Remember Dr. Frank Jobe, who boldly took an innovative approach to help a patient return to the sport he built a life upon. Remember the countless athletes who owe their careers to this transformative procedure. And remember that even in the face of adversity, there’s always hope for a comeback.