You Know About “Tommy John Surgery,” But What Do You Know About Tommy John, the Great Pitcher?
Left-handed pitcher Tommy John has something unique in common with the great Lou Gehrig.
Both names are forever linked to a medical issue and will be for all time—ALS is called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and elbow ligament reconstructive surgery is called Tommy John Surgery.
Most baseball fans know about Lou Gehrig.
It’s not the same with Tommy John. And there’s something that’s not quite right about that.
And that’s despite the fact that he had a long, and extremely successful pitching career, (before and after his surgery), pitched for the Yankees and Dodgers, has his name in the records books, and even pitched in a few World Series.
Here’s a handful of facts about Tommy John that will make you think about more than his famous elbow.
For instance, did you know…?
1. Tommy John had a 26-year career. Only Nolan Ryan had a longer career (27 years). In 1989, Tommy John wrapped up his career pitching for the Oakland A’s. Tommy John pitched for six teams, including two separate stints with the Yankees. The only NL team he ever pitched for was the Dodgers.
2. Tommy John ranks 8th all-time in career starts. Tommy John started exactly 700 games in his career. Only Cy Young, Nolan Ryan (773), Don Sutton (756), Greg Maddux (740), Phil Niekro (716), Steve Carlton (709), Roger Clemens (707) started more games.
3. Tommy John is one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time. Of all southpaws, John has the 7th most victories, right behind famous throwers such as Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine.
4. Tommy John pitched an amazing 162 complete games. And 91 of them coming after his elbow reconstructive surgery. Yes, he pitched in an era when pitchers went all the way, but his numbers are impressive nonetheless. By comparison, the active leaders in career complete games today include Bartolo Colon (38), CC Sabathia (38), Felix Hernandez (25), and Clayton Kershaw (25).
5. Tommy John had a 13-3 record with the L.A. Dodgers record before the All-Star Game in 1974. But right after that he hurt his elbow and he didn’t return to the mound the rest of the season. That was the injury that led to the surgery, which took place in September of ‘74.
6. Tommy John had won 124 games before his elbow surgery. He was in his 12th MLB season in the middle of the ’74 season…and that’s almost a full career for most pitchers. He was solid too, with records of 11-5 in 1972, 16-7 in ’73, and 13-3 in ’74.
7. Tommy John took off only one season to rehabilitate. In 1975, he worked with pitching teammate Mike Marshall, who had a degree in kinesiology, who taught him how to pitch in a way to put less stress on his legs and arm. John was back on the mound in 1976.
8. Tommy John pitched a full season following his surgery. He started 31 games in 1976 and won 10 of them. He finished with an impressive 3.09 ERA.
9. Tommy John had four great consecutive seasons, from 1977-80. Starting in only the second season after his comeback, he went on a tear. He was 20-7 in ’77 and 17-10 the next season, both with the Dodgers. With the Yankees in ’79 and ’80, he went 21-9 and 22-9 respectively. (That averages out to roughly 20-9 for those four years.)
10. Tommy John pitched in three World Series. He was on the losing end of two World Series with the Dodgers against the Yankees, in 1977 and 1978. John left the Dodgers for those same Yankees in 1979, only to lose to the Dodgers in the World Series in 1981.
11. Tommy John’s lifetime regular season W-L record was 288-231. Amazingly, 164 of those wins came after his famous surgery. The great Sandy Koufax won 165 games in his entire career.
12. Tommy John has 188 no-decisions for his career. That achievement is a major-league record; however, it does reflect his competitiveness and longevity.
13. Tommy John was named to four all-star teams. His first selection came in 1968, when we went 10-5 for the White Sox. Ten years later he started a three-year run as an all-star, in 1978, ’79 and ’80…after his operation.
14. Tommy John is NOT in the Hall of Fame. He was on the HoF ballot for 15 years but never crossed the 75% threshold to be inducted. He could have been inducted in 2017 by the 16-person Modern Era Committee …but they chose two other players instead.
An amazing career; not a shortened career.
Tommy John—the pitcher with two first names and who was brave enough to be the first to undergo radical elbow reconstructive surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe—retired in 1989, 14 seasons after he started his improbable comeback.
When he pitched his last game, he was 46 years old—the oldest active player in Major League Baseball that season.
Resources: baseball-reference.com/players/j/johnto01.shtml; sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/tommy-john-on-baseball-hall-of-fame;si.com/mlb/2017/11/10/hall-fame-modern-baseball-era-committee; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TommyJohn
Photo credit: https://www.mlbdailydish.com/2014/4/30/5668068/mlb-tommy-john-surgeries-complete-list-2014