COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The Hall of Fame candidacy of Tommy John has passed unfulfilled. His outstanding career earned him a full 15-year run on the baseball writers' ballot, but the difference between eligibility and election was too great an expanse for him to span despite his 288 victories, 46 shutouts and all those ground balls. Now, however, the pitcher with the toxic sinker has, well ... elbowed his way into the Hall, not as a pitcher, but as a patient.
John, or at least his famously repaired left elbow, today has a place in the Hall, though not the gallery of baseball royalty. He is a part of unique entry that represents a sea change in baseball medicine that occurred 39 years ago and has profoundly changed the career path of countless pitchers and position players.
The Hall has recognized the contribution of Dr. Frank Jobe, the innovator of reconstructive elbow surgery that extended the pitching lives of John and scores of other big leaguers and untold pitchers yet to step on a mound.
Surgeon and patient/friend John were two of the five men saluted here Saturday afternoon at Doubleday Field, a few Rocky Colavito throws down the block from the Hall. Also saluted were Thomas Tull, the CEO of Legendary Entertainment, the company that produced "42," the biopic of Jackie Robinson; Paul Hagen, MLB.com writer and winner of the 2013 J.G. Taylor Spink Award presented for contributions to baseball writing and the late Tom Cheek, the original voice of the Blue Jays and the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award presented annually for excellence in broadcasting.
The trio of Jacob Ruppert, Deacon White and Hank O'Day, elected to the Hall of Fame late last year by the 16-person Pre-Integration Veterans Committee, will be represented by their heirs at Sunday's induction ceremony, beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET. Hall of Fame coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. on MLB Network.
| A brief tip of the cap to Tommy John and Dr. Frank Jobe, written in the style of humorist/poet Ogden Nash who, decades ago, published his "Lineup for Yesterday," an alphabetical salute in verse to players from his past, in the Saturday Evening Post. |
J is for TJ
And patients of Jobe
Who fixed all those elbows
with tendons borrowed
Because of the surgery in which Jobe replaced the ruptured ulnar collateral ligament in John's left elbow with a tendon from the pitcher's right wrist, and because of the extended success John enjoyed after the surgery, the pitcher and repairman are forever linked, like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris or Pete Rose and Ray Fosse. John's name became connected to the procedure and made the former White Sox, Dodgers and Yankees pitcher more renowned for the career-saving surgery than he was for the career. For that matter, John is more readily recalled than Jobe.
"If I just didn't win so many darn games after [Jobe] fixed me, the right man would have gotten the credit," John said decades after the three surgeries Jobe performed on his elbow. The second one, the historic one, came in September 1974. John resumed his career in 1976 and won 164 more games.
After Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark introduced and praised Jobe, and the good doctor had made his comments, John identified Jobe and thanked "the best orthopedic surgeon in the world and my friend." Later, the former pitcher said, "Marvin Miller, Frank Jobe and Jackie Robinson had changed the face of baseball."
Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson had praised the five honorees, particularly Tull and Jobe, Friday, saying. "When you think about Thomas Tull and what he did to bring '42' to the silver screen, allowing children to learn about integration, and what Dr. Jobe has done -- what, 500 players have now had Tommy John surgery? And that's just in baseball. Those are magnificent contributions."
Brent Strom, who began his big league career career with the Mets and moved on to the Indians and Padres, was Jobe's second elbow repair. The results weren't so successful for Strom. Years later, Strom joked with John about the surgery's identity. "You realize this could just as easily been called 'Brent Strom' surgery," John said Saturday, recounting the conversation. "It's called that if you can't come back. If you come back and pitch well, it's 'Tommy John.'"
Jobe, 88 and retired, never counted his Tommy John patients. John, 70, happens to know that 124 similarly repaired men have reached the big leagues. "It'll be 130, 140 in a few years, [the injury is] like an epidemic."
John was not prepared to retire when the ligament snapped and the elbow defied a regimen of rest and rehabilitation in 1974. He told his doctor, "Come up with something." He wasn't inclined to return home to Terre Haute, Ind., to sell cars.
Jobe said Saturday: "I wasn't too confident it would work."
He gave 100-to-1 odds the surgery would allow John to sell cars but not pitch. Indeed, Jobe didn't repair Strom's until two years had passed.
"I wanted to see what happened with Tommy," Jobe said. "Medicine had just developed procedures for athletes that weren't intended to save lives," but to limit the effect of injuries."
"Before '72, if you had arm surgery," John said, "you were toast."
* * * *
John, who still has some Dodgers blue blood, and Tull spoke briefly Saturday about Tull's movie and Robinson. Another connection. Tull characterized himself as a "baseball fanatic" who considered a biopic of one of baseball's two most impactful players -- Babe Ruth being the other -- was "important to do. I was passionate about it," he said.
Tull said "42" already had earned $100 million."But that's not the only reason we made it. It was a privilege."
Tull came to know Robinson's widow, Rachael, through Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and recalled that what he considered "the most nervous moment in my life" was when Rachel was to see the finished product for the first time. It made him no more comfortable when she invited -- no, urged -- him to set next to her.
"She was focused on the screen but there was one particularly emotional part," Tull said. "And I moved to hold her hand. I'd know what she thought if she slapped it away. But she squeezed it and smiled."
The recognition afforded Tull on Saturday wasn't quite so personal or warm. Neither a smile, nor a squeeze, but a salute from the Baseball Hall of Fame, with Rachel Robinson in attendance was quite fulfilling and appreciated.
The filmmaker's closing remark clearly struck the hundreds gathered. He spoke of Superman and Batman, the characters in other movies he has brought to the big screen and added: "The greatest superhero movie you'll ever make is about Jackie Robinson."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com.