Tommy John’s baseball legacy is the pioneering elbow reconstructive surgery that resurrected his career and those of countless pitchers. Lesser known is that John is one of the winningest pitchers not to have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
John’s 288 victories are the third-most of any pitcher not in the Hall. He trails Roger Clemens (354), whose candidacy has been clouded by a suspected link to performance-enhancing drugs, and Bobby Mathews (297) a 5-5 reputed spitballer in the 19th century. In his 26-year-career, John won more games than eight pitchers who have gained election to the Hall of Fame.
John spent 15 years on the writers’ ballot, gaining his highest percent (31.7) in 2009, his final year of eligibility. A player needs 75 percent for election. Three veterans committees also failed to elect him in 2010, 2013 and 2017.
“My dad said don’t spend your nights worrying about something you have no control over,’’ John, 75, said last week from Palm Springs, California. “I don’t have any control over this, so I don’t worry about it.’’
But John does seem rankled by the exclusion.
“I’m sure if I had somebody like Jerry Reinsdorf and Tony La Russa on the committee to pump me up, I would get in like Harold Baines got it,’’ he said.
Baines was voted in by the Today’s Era Committee in December. He received 12 of 16 committee votes.
“If I would have won 12 more games, there’s no problem, you’re in,” John said. “I can’t believe 12 games means the difference between Hall of Fame status and being out and looking in. I didn’t throw a hundred miles an hour. Some people used to say I was an easy 0-for-4 because I never embarrassed anybody by striking them out four times.”
Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who won 268 games, sat on one of the veterans’ committee and said he voted for John.
“One of the executives said he didn’t have that many really good years,’’ Palmer said. “I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’ He won 20 games three times. I said to this executive, ‘Do you have any idea, and I don’t think you do, how hard it is to win 280 games?’ And back then it wasn’t like you pitched five or five and two-thirds innings. For sure, if they don’t get in initially, they really forget how good some of them were.”
John wonders if, for some reason, the surgery that bears his name has been a factor in his exclusion. He averaged 18 victories the first five years after recovering from his 1974 surgery. He was top four in Cy Young voting three times and pitched in three World Series for the Dodgers and Yankees. “I think sometimes that goes against me,’’ he said. “Some say, ‘He’s better known for the arm.’ ”