I turned to the next page in my Topps 1975 binder and smiled. The choice was an easy one for multiple reasons.
The cards on the page:
Card 40 – Bob Singer, Angels
Card 41 – Cesar Geronimo, Reds
Card 42 – Joe Coleman, Tigers
Card 43 – Cleon Jones, Mets
Card 44 – Pat Dobson, Yankees
Card 45 – Joe Rudi, A’s
Card 46 – Phillies Team Card
Card 47 – Tommy John, Dodgers
Card 48 – Freddie Patek, Royals
Despite my allegiance, I won’t always select a Dodgers player, but Tommy John is just too difficult to pass up, and again for multiple reasons. Okay yes, he is a Los Angeles Dodgers player on his 1975 card but there is so much more.
I asked a twenty-something co-worker once if he’d ever heard of Tommy John, and the answer was a good one: “You mean the surgery guy?” He of course was referring to the famous Tommy John Surgery that has revolutionized the sport of baseball for so many pitchers, saving throwing arms for some and lengthening careers for countless others.
But it all started with the guy for which the procedure is named, and a doctor by the name of Frank Jobe.
Tommy John made his debut in 1963 as a member of the team that signed him as an amateur free agent in 1961, the Cleveland Indians. A lefty with a great sinkerball, he got into 31 games with the Indians over two seasons, but was dealt by Cleveland in January of 1965 as part of a three-team trade that ultimately sent him to the Chicago White Sox.
John had decent success in Chicago, posting an 82-80 record and striking out nearly twice as many hitters as he walked in seven seasons with the White Sox.
His trade to the Dodgers in December of 1971 for crazy-wacky 70s baseball icon Dick Allen set into motion both the successes as a pitcher that would define his consistent career as well as the medical procedure that would be the legacy he would leave behind to generations of faulty elbows that have and will follow his to the pitching mound.
John’s sinkerball and the pitching-friendly confines of Dodger Stadium were a match made in baseball heaven, and his 1972-1973 seasons results were just what he and the team were looking for. Posting 27 wins and striking out better than twice the number of batters that he walked in 60 starts for the Dodgers during these two seasons, John carried this consistency into the Dodgers’ World Series season of 1974, and as the All Star break approached, the pitcher found himself with a 13-3 record as he took the mound on July 17, 1974 at Dodger Stadium against the Montreal Expos.
I was fortunate enough to interview Tommy John a few years ago and he has some recollections of that evening as well as the events that followed.
“I had the start against the Expos and my next start before the break was going to be against Philadelphia so I’m thinking that I would be 15-3 heading into the All Star Game,” he recalls. “The Expos had runners on first and second and I threw a sinker to Hal Breeden (Expos first baseman), and I just felt this weird pain in my elbow. I threw another pitch and had the same pain, so I knew something wasn’t right so I signaled for (Dodgers manager) Walt Alston to come out and I told him to get somebody ready in the bullpen because I was hurt.”
He was hurt alright.
What John had done was permanently damage the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm, but medical technology being what it was in 1974, it took a while to get at the diagnosis let alone a procedure to fix it.
“I walked into the dugout, grabbed my jacket and talked to (Dodgers trainer) Bill Buhler, and we both hoped that (team physician) Frank Jobe was in the clubhouse and thankfully he was,” said John. “Dr. Jobe examined me, sent me home and had me come to his office the next day. He and another surgeon examined me and came to the conclusion that I had torn a ligament in my elbow. You have to understand that at the time there was no MRI – they couldn’t take a picture of the ligament – all they had were x-rays.”
Now this is an interesting sentence to type: Dr. Frank Jobe performed Tommy John surgery on Tommy John on September 25, 1974.
Obviously the revolutionary procedure – where the injured ligament is replaced with a healthy tendon from another part of the patient’s body – was not yet called Tommy John Surgery at that point, but it was a life-changing operation for John and now for countless baseball players at the amateur and professional level.
Current superstars Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey are among the 82 major leaguers past and present who have had the career-sustaining procedure.
Interestingly, today we are celebrating Tommy John’s 1975 Topps card, but he ultimately sat out the entire 1975 season recovering and rehabilitating from the operation.
The Dodgers lost to the Oakland A’s in the 1974 World Series, but John was still around the team enough to experience the ride.
“I got to throw out the first pitch before the first playoff game against Pittsburgh,” he said. “But I threw it out right handed. I got to be around the team all season, but I was also very focused on the doing the things I needed to do to get back to pitching.”
1975 was more of the same.
“I was with the team all the time. I would work-out early and Bill Buhler had me on a jogging program where I was jogging and sprinting all the time,” John said. “You had to remember that there really wasn’t any true rehab program back then. You just did all of the same stuff you would normally do, with a lot of exercises and I was typically throwing six days a week. I would take Sundays off from throwing and my arm felt the best on Fridays and Saturdays, worst on Mondays and Tuesdays. I learned that the more I threw the better my arm felt.”
After sitting out an entire season, Tommy John came back for the 1976 season where he posted a 10-10 record, but he also remembers the challenges of dealing with an abbreviated Spring Training due to a labor dispute that had the owners locking players out of camps for 32 days before it was resolved.
“We were still in (Dodgers long-time Spring Training facility) Vero Beach throwing on our own when they finally opened camp and it was pretty much hurry-up and get all of the rundown drills and all the other things we do in a normal Spring Training done quickly,” he recalled. “I remember my first start of the spring and I pitched three innings in St. Petersburg and nobody throws three innings in Spring Training any more, even if they are healthy. But I threw three that day and five innings in the next game against Houston. In my final start of the spring I threw seven innings in a rainstorm against the Angels and Nolan Ryan at Angel Stadium, so my entire Spring Training consisted of those starts. If it had been today I would have had a real rehab, had some rehab starts and got myself healthy and ready for the season, but that’s how you did it back then.”
Another thing that an accelerated 1976 Spring Training couldn’t have possibly prepared Tommy John for was the unrelenting microscope that he would be under in his initial regular season starts – his first true game action that he would experience since the surgery.
He could not have known that anything short of tangible success may have ultimately pushed him out of baseball forever.
“In my first start against the Braves I didn’t pitch great, but I also wasn’t terrible,” John recalls.
In fact, he pitched five innings and allowed three runs on five hits, striking out only one and walking four batters. Not exactly your classic Tommy John outing, but what people seemed to be forgetting was this was a guy coming back from radical surgery that had never been performed. But instead of being applauded for a miraculous comeback he was called on the carpet by the guy who should have been the most supportive.
“Walt Alston told me that if I didn’t pitch better in my next start that it would be my last start,” said John. “So I just looked at him incredulously and said that after all I had been through this was all I got – five starts, three in Spring Training and two regular season starts – and he just told me that we were trying to win a championship here and we couldn’t mess around and bring me along slowly. So I asked him if I could name my own lineup and he said sure. So I told him that I always pitched well to (catcher) Joe Ferguson, and I asked if he could catch me. He said okay.”
So Tommy John went to the Astrodome mound that evening with quite a bit riding on this one start. Behind the plate and calling the signals was his requested catcher, Joe Ferguson. No pressure: Just his career in baseball hanging in the balance.
“So I went out against Houston knowing that this could possibly be my last start as a Dodger. The first inning was just bizarre,” he recalls. “The Astros got two runners on and Bob Watson is coming up and Alston’s got the bullpen going full-bore. If I give up a hit to Watson I’m done. I go 3-0 to Watson and Fergie (Ferguson) comes out and says, ‘Hey, this might be your last pitch in baseball, let’s make it a good one that he can hit out of the ballpark so you can say that your last pitch was hit for a home run.’ So I threw one down the middle, and then I threw one that he fouled back and then I threw one that he swung at and missed for strike three and I got out of the inning.”
John laughs at the memory of the exchange on the mound and the comedy stylings of Ferguson, and acknowledged that he didn’t have his best stuff that evening in Houston, but he learned to cope with the highs and lows of his comeback by changing speeds and working his way out of jams. He pitched seven strong innings that night and was well on the road to recovery.
“When they pulled me for a pinch hitter in the eighth I asked Walt if I’d pitched well enough to get another start,” John recalled. “He said I had.”
Tommy John’s 1975 card reflects the stoppage in time that was his 1974 season when it froze with a 13-3 record and 2.59 earned run average.
Little did he know that his career was really just beginning. True, he did compile 130 of his 288 career wins before hurting his elbow, but it is safe to say that it was the time following Dr. Jobe’s miracle procedure that truly defined his career.
Following the surgery, John pitched for 14 more seasons, making 438 starts from 1976 to 1989. He played on Dodger World Series teams in 1977 and 1978, and for the Yankees in the 1981 Fall Classic. Interestingly, he was on the losing end all three times, as his Dodgers teams lost to the Yankees and his Yankee club fell to the Dodgers.
Tommy John actually had two stints with the Yankees, from 1979 to 1982 and then back to the Bronx again from 1986 to 1989. In between he had stops in California and Oakland. When he was released by the Yankees in May of 1989 he was 46 years old and ready to call it a career. He left the game with an impressive ledger of those 288 career wins, better than 2,200 strike outs and a 3.34 ERA. He was 6-3 with a 2.65 earned run average in 13 career post season starts.
And while his successful career was played out on stages in six different major league cities, Tommy John will likely always be remembered not only as the guy who has a career-saving procedure named after him, but also as a Los Angeles Dodger.
And he has fond memories of his time in Los Angeles, a time when a team was more like family to him.
“The Dodgers made it very special because they always included your family in the things that we did,” he recalled. “They (owner Walter O’Malley and wife Kay) always invited the family to Spring Training and they had this big steak dinner where everyone was invited, the minor league kids, the wives and all of the children. They had this Christmas tree that was decorated and Santa Claus came out and passed around gifts for all the kids – a blue box that was for the boys and a pink one for the girls. They were just meaningless little gifts, but just the fact that they went out of their way to make your family feel that they were part of the deal made it special.”
His final spring camp with the Dodgers left a lasting memory.
“You know in 1978, the last day of Spring Training was right around Easter and the O’Malley family had an Easter egg hunt for the kids,” he recalled. “There was a petting zoo and there was cake and punch and all this stuff. The O’Malley family just made it so good and so nice and they knew that if the family was content that the player would be content and play harder.”
Not that he needed a lot of added incentive to play and pitch harder, but it is safe to say that Tommy John was a content ballplayer, even when the odds were stacked against him, and with quite a bit of determination, a lot of perseverance and some humorous advice from his catcher, he parlayed all of it into a seriously successful career.