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Dr. Frank Jobe, Originator Of Tommy John Surgery, Dies At 88

John Jobe

Dr. Frank Jobe, who in the mid-1970s came up with a surgical technique that has saved the careers of countless numbers of Major League Baseball pitchers, has died at the age of 88:

On a July night in 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe, the orthopedist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium watching the ace left-hander Tommy John face the Montreal Expos.

In the third inning, John threw a pair of wild pitches and heard the sound of a “collision” coming from his arm. He had torn an elbow ligament, which almost certainly meant the end of a pitcher’s career.

But Dr. Jobe performed a pioneering operation, transplanting an unneeded tendon from John’s right wrist into his left elbow, where it functioned as a new ligament. John went on to win another 164 games over 14 seasons, retiring from the game at age 46.

Dr. Jobe, who died Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif., at 88, was renowned as the father of Tommy John surgery, a landmark in sports medicine that has been duplicated thousands of times and has saved the careers of numerous athletes, most of them pitchers. His death was announced by the Dodgers.

Dr. Jobe also performed groundbreaking shoulder surgery on the star Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser in 1990, developing a procedure that reduces trauma to tissue during the operation. Hershiser pitched for another decade, and Dr. Jobe’s shoulder procedure has been employed many times since.

When Hershiser returned to the mound at Dodger Stadium on May 29, 1991, he bowed his head in silent prayer, then placed his Dodger cap on his head and threw a salute to Dr. Jobe.

“I think there should be a medical wing in the Hall of Fame, starting with him,” John once told The Orange County Register.

(…)

A long list of pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery includes A. J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, John Smoltz, Stephen Strasburg, Billy Wagner, David Wells, Brian Wilson and Matt Harvey.

But when Dr. Jobe suggested the tendon transplant to John, he said the chances of success were slim. He had performed the procedure on polio patients to improve joint use, but never on an athlete.

“He looked around my office very seriously,” Dr. Jobe told Fox Sports in 2012. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And those are three words that changed baseball.”

Frank W. Jobe was born in Greensboro, N.C., in 1925, the son of a postman. He joined the Army out of high school during World War II and served as a medical supply sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge.

He was inspired by watching surgeons work under combat conditions.

“These guys would be operating in tents with bullets and shrapnel flying around,” Dr. Jobe told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. “There was tremendous noise from the shells going off. There was blood everywhere. These guys became my real heroes.”

After the war, Dr. Jobe graduated from La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., and obtained a medical degree from Loma Linda University in California.

He was a general practitioner for three years, then completed a residency in orthopedic surgery and in 1965 joined with Dr. Robert Kerlan as founders of the Southwestern Orthopaedic Medical Group in Los Angeles. It was renamed the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in 1985.

Dr. Jobe began doing consultant work with the Dodgers in 1964 and became their orthopedic doctor in 1968. In performing his surgery on John, who had won 124 games in the majors to that point, Dr. Jobe took a tendon from the wrist, then drilled holes in John’s damaged elbow and wove the tendon through them. During John’s long rehabilitation process, the tendon began to function as the damaged ulnar collateral ligament had.

John missed the last half of the 1974 season and all of 1975. On April 26, 1976, he won his first major league game since the injury, a victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He later become a mainstay of the Yankees’ pitching staff, and his elbow never troubled him again.

The Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax retired at 30 after the 1966 season because of an elbow injury similar to John’s.

“I’ve seen him many times in spring training and, sure, he’s brought it up,” Dr. Jobe told The Daily News of Los Angeles in 2012. “He’d say, ‘Why didn’t you do that on me?’ We simply didn’t know what to do for them back then.”

It was just last July that Jobe was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his work (the photograph above shows Jobe speaking while Tommy John, who has yet to make it into the hall himself, looks on). As I noted at the time, Jobe’s surgery proved revolutionary for sports medicine and allowed countless numbers of pitchers to extend their careers far longer than they might have otherwise been able to.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Just imagine if every pitcher who had ever had T-J surgery gave just one half of one % of their salaries…. What couldn’t be done?

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  2. Kari Q says:

    I remember that injury. Usually there is a flurry of activity around an injured player as coaches and teammates react and try to help. That time, he just threw the pitch, then walked off the field. We were all wondering what happened. When we heard, we were sure that he’d never play again. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that we’re no longer aware of just how amazing that surgery is.

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  3. DrDaveT says:

    There is actually a common belief these days within MLB that a pitcher will typically come back from Tommy John surgery with better velocity than before. Accuracy suffers at first, but comes back within about a year. (That’s assuming that the torn ulnar collateral ligament is the only damage.) It’s almost seen as a good sign when a young arm has the surgery — “Well, he’s got that out of the way now…”

    Some outstanding info on how much TJ surgery has changed baseball here.

    Anibal Sanchez, who was by far the most valuable pitcher in the American League last year, had TJ surgery in 2003. Pre-Jobe, his career would have been over before it started. That said, there haven’t been all that many other great careers post-TJ. David Wells, John Smoltz (reliever version), John himself. Not many others. The surgery saves careers, but it’s not clear it saves greatness.

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