39° Good Morning
39° Good Morning

Pioneering Dr. Frank Jobe gave hundreds of pitchers a second chance

??Dr. Frank Jobe, known for the development of

??Dr. Frank Jobe, known for the development of the historic elbow procedure known as “Tommy John Surgery,” speaks as he is honored during a ceremony at Doubleday Field on Saturday, July 27, 2013, in Cooperstown. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

The procedure is called "Tommy John surgery," Dr. Frank Jobe said, because "ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction while using the palmaris longus tendon" is a bit of a mouthful.

And by all accounts, Jobe, who died Thursday at 88, was too self-effacing to attach his own name to his creation, which revived hundreds of pitching careers -- beginning with lefthander Tommy John in 1974.

Jobe once declined to sign an autograph for the son of a star athlete because he believed it to be a silly request. Upon his recognition during last summer's Hall of Fame ceremonies, a belated honor for leaving an imprint on baseball as long-lasting as Babe Ruth's home run power and Marvin Miller's player empowerment, Jobe recalled his belief that the original Tommy John surgery had a 1-percent chance of working.

"I didn't do another one for two years," Jobe said then. "And I didn't think it was such a big deal until other doctors started doing it."

Eventually, Jobe's procedure was performed on no less than 273 pitchers, a handful of position players and at least one javelin thrower, and changed sports medicine.

"It was incredibly revolutionary," said Dr. Bradford Parsons, a surgeon specializing in elbow and shoulder surgery at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine. "And now it's being done by all the people Dr. Jobe trained, and by all the people that were trained by those he trained, all the way down. You have a procedure that lasts through the test of time, now 40 years later, and is being done pretty much the same way -- and not by five or 10 surgeons. Hundreds and hundreds are doing Tommy John surgery" -- many, like Parsons, on athletes below the professional level.

In 1974, Jobe was the Los Angeles Dodgers' orthopedist when John, a 31-year-old veteran at the time, wore out the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and was scavenging around for a miracle cure. Jobe, aware that tendons had been transferred from one body part to another in hand surgeries and to reinforce the joints of polio victims, decided to attempt a similar surgery. Somewhat reluctantly.

"He said, 'You don't need the surgery; you'll be fine,' " John recalled at Cooperstown last year. "He said, 'You can play catch with your kids and throw batting practice to your kids, but you'll never be able to pitch major-league baseball again.' I wanted to pitch major-league baseball."

So Jobe took a six-inch tendon from John's right forearm, near the wrist, and threaded it through holes drilled in the left elbow, with the intent of having the tendon function as a ligament.

John, after more than a year of rehabilitation, pitched 14 more seasons in the big leagues, winning at least 20 games three times and going 164-125 with a 3.66 ERA in that span. He finished his 26-year career with 288 victories, including 91 in eight seasons with the Yankees.

Two years after John's surgery, Brent Strom, who had pitched briefly for the Mets and was struggling with elbow pain in San Diego, was Jobe's second Tommy John patient. Strom, now pitching coach with the Houston Astros, joked last week that it was better that his name wasn't on the procedure, given that his postoperative career consisted of three more seasons and only 20 more victories.

To less acclaim, and without a player's name attached, Jobe fixed Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser's shoulder with a pioneering reconstruction in 1990, prompting Hershiser to throw Jobe a party and give him a trophy.

In the end, Jobe argued, it was players' talent and commitment to rehabilitation -- "Patience," Jobe preached -- that was at the heart of their physical revival. "There's a myth out there," he said, "that after Tommy John surgery, you can pitch better than you did before. That's not true. All it does is put it back to where it was and, if they have a good rehab program, they may pitch better than they did just before they got hurt, when they were beginning to go downhill."

Still, Jobe's surgical advances took the Hippocratic oath -- "Do no harm" -- to a Hall of Fame level.

New York Sports