Five minutes with….Tommy John
Last Wednesday legions of Cubs fans descended upon at HoHoKam Park for the second annual “Fergie and Friends” charity event. The night was hosted by Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, who was accompanied by dozens of his Hall of Fame contemporaries such as Juan Marichal, Bob Feller, Rollie Fingers and Billy Williams, as well as popular former players like Dave Stewart, Bob Dernier and George Foster.
While hundreds of fans milled about the infield, taking pictures with their heroes, one had wandered out to centerfield talking to his family on his cell phone. After finishing his conversation, clad in Yankee pinstripes and a familiar “NY” on his chest, pushing up his sleeve like he was still on the mound. He sauntered back but then was approached by two little girls.
“Hi, mister. Can we take a picture with you?”
The girls turned to each other, then to the man. “Um, who are you?”
“I’m Tommy John. I pitched for the Yankees.”
These days most people might not remember the 288 wins John had over his 26-year career, but they surely are familiar with the revolutionary elbow replacement surgery that bears his name. While in Spring Training last week, I got to spend a couple of minutes with John. He might have grown up in Terre Haute, Ind., and played for the White Sox, but he was quite clear–in a slight Southern twang–for which team he rooted as a youngster.
Tommy John: You know I grew up a Cubs fan, don’tcha? You know that, right?.
Vine Line: Well, you grew up in Indiana, so I would hope so!
TJ: Remember when you were a little kid and had to name your favorite players?
‘Course I’m back in the dark ages, but my favorite Cubs were Dee Fondy, Hank “The Mayor” Sauer and Bob Rush. I was a huge Bob Rush fan. I was a big Cubs fan because my parents were big Cubs and Bears fans.
VL: Can you describe the thought process in deciding to undergo, until then, what was an unknown and risky surgical process?
TJ: When I first hurt my elbow, I went to see Dr. Frank Jobe the very next day. In 1974, there were no MRIs, there was no nothing. You had X-ray. They X-rayed it, and the elbow was sound. There were no chips or anything. But they held my humerus up sideways and my elbow just opened up. Dr. Jobe said he thought I had torn the ligament in the elbow. But they let me just rest for 3-4 weeks. After that, I met the [Dodgers] at Shea Stadium, and they ran me out there to throw batting practice. As soon as I got on the pitched surface, aw gosh, did that hurt. I had to stop. So I went to our longtime trainer, Bill Bueller, and asked him what if we taped my arm like you would a sprained ankle.
VL: Wait. You taped your arm…together?
TJ: Oh yeah. Seriously. I could throw pretty good with that, but the ball didn’t have that late life to it. So I called Dr. Jobe and he laid it out on the line. He said I had two choices. I really didn’t need to have to surgery. He said I could live an everyday life without having it. But I would never pitch major-league baseball again. So I said, if I do it, what are the chances? Probably about 1 or 2 out of 100. But if I didn’t do it, there was no chance at all. I even called my old buddy Hoyt Wilhelm in Florida.
VL: Hey, Wilhelm was a Cubs for a short while.
TJ: Yep, he was. So I called him and said I was going to have this surgery. And if I couldn’t get my fastball up where I needed it, he was going to have to teach me a knuckleball!
VL: So how did Dr. Jobe explain the procedure?
TJ: Well, Dr. Jobe said he was going to remove a tendon from my right arm–the palmaris longus. Transplants of tendons in the hand wrist were done all the time, so he used that technique because it would be very similar in the elbow. There was also a hand surgeon Dr. Herbert Stark. Dr. Stark would be present during the procedure because he had done many of those hand and wrist tendon transplants, but it was never done in an elbow of a guy who threw 90 mph. Dr. Jobe had four other doctors in there with him, several of his associates because he said “I don’t know what I’m doing and I want as many bright minds who can help me.” That’s why I told him he was the right doctor to do this.
VL: And so how did the surgery turn out?
TJ: There was a chance that the tendon in my elbow simply snapped off and they could perhaps reattach it. But when they went in there, Dr. Jobe said the torn ligaments looked like a big bowl of spaghetti. It had just ruptured and strands were all over. So it had to be replaced. And when I felt on my right arm the stitches, I knew they had to go and get the tendon.
VL: You went on to continue your career. Despite the fact you won 288 games, how do you feel about the surgery being your legacy in baseball?
TJ: Guys are coming back in 12-15 months, throwing as hard or even harder than they were before. But they need to regain that feel for pitching. They gotta re-learn pitching. But at least they’re pitching. It used to be a death sentence for a baseball player. Now guys like Kerry Wood and John Smoltz and tons of other guys have been able to have productive careers. And that’s OK with me.
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