Tommy John History


On April 21, 2007 the professional baseball season was well underway. I was not yet the Yankees doctor, but I was spending the morning with a retired Yankee player. I had invited my mentor, teacher, and inventor of Tommy John Surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe to our New York Orthopedic Hospital Alumni Biennial Meeting as our Alan DeForest Smith Lecturer. Our Biennial medical meeting is a gathering or the brightest orthopedic surgeons and alumni of our surgery training program. This year’s meeting was historic with Dr. Jobe scheduled to speak on Tommy John Surgery. 

Leading up to the meeting however, Dr. Jobe developed incapacitating back pain from spinal stenosis and required surgery on his own spine. Unable to come to the meeting, and rather than simply cancel, he called Tommy John and asked him if he would fill in. John came to our medical center with tremendous enthusiasm and upon walking into the lecture hall, he expressed how was excited he was to “Pinch Hit” for his friend and surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe.

“Everyone remembers what they were doing when JFK was shot on November 22 1963. I was getting my first elbow cortisone injection. Early that week, I had thrown a shutout and the next morning could not move my arm.” What many people do not know is that John had excessive amounts for elbow cortisone injections, “Between November 22, 1963 to July 14, 1974, I probably had 40 cortisone injections….!”

I began the meeting by first giving a lecture on how to diagnose UCL injuries and perform Tommy John Surgery. Was truly an honor to discuss advancements in Tommy John Surgery with Tommy John himself present. I then introduced Tommy John with a few slides on his career achievements. John stepped up to the lectern with no notes or slides and began speaking. “I first hurt my elbow when I was 13 years of age when changing from little league to Babe Ruth League. The mound to home distance increased 45 feet to 60 feet. With my elbow hurt, I played first base for a while. I really became a pitcher in high school.”

John explained that any pitcher who experienced elbow pain at that time became extremely concerned about their career. “I don’t recall a pitcher in the 60s or 70s who had surgery who came back. In 1972, I slid into home and jammed my left elbow. Dr. Jobe diagnosed me with loose chips and recommended surgical removal. I did not know if surgery was the right choice so I called my dad.” John explained that he needed reassurance from his dad that surgery was the best next step. Jobe cleaned out chips and repaired his flexor tendon.

In Spring training 1973 John felt good but was not throwing well. Everyone was asking him including players and eventually players’ wives – is your arm ok? The trainers told him his arm was ok. But John explained to our audience that no one can tell you if your arm is fine. The only person is you. You need to get confident on your own. He took 6 baseballs out of Dodger town and threw for 1 hour and threw as hard as he could with a catcher. Then the next day – he got a catcher and threw curve balls as hard as he could.