#TBT: Forty years ago, Tommy John became a pioneer

Left-hander made first comeback from surgery named for him

April 13th, 2016

Even to those who knew what was happening on April 16, 1976, it wasn't a big deal.

There were 15,825 fans in the stands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Braves were playing the Dodgers, and Atlanta starter Dick Ruthven threw the first pitch of the game to Los Angeles' Bill Buckner.

The Dodgers were on their way to a 92-70 record and a second-place finish in the National League West. The Braves would end up 70-92, last in the same division.

But the reason to stand up and notice what was going on in the ballpark, even if it was a bit obscure at the time, was the reason we remember that night 40 years ago this Saturday.

In the bottom of that first inning, baseball history was altered -- some would say saved -- forever. Tommy John became the first pitcher to come back from the revolutionary elbow ligament replacement surgery that has long borne his name, and he did it in style.

Today, the tearing of a pitcher's ulnar collateral ligament is no longer a career-ending calamity. Now it's usually just a tough setback on the tough road to Major League success, but it's also something through which a diligent athlete, training staff and physical therapy team can navigate.

But that night? Business as usual, especially for the pitcher.

"I was back in my office," John says now. "I took a year-and-a-half hiatus to, you know, go abroad and study and learn the dynamics of nuclear fission, or something like that.

"I did all that, and now I was back at work."

The year-and-a-half hiatus is now the stuff of legend. John, the stellar left-hander, was 13-3 with a 2.59 ERA on July 17, 1974, when his elbow gave out on him during a Dodger Stadium start.

Team physician Frank Jobe and renowned hand surgeon Herbert Stark figured out it was a torn UCL. John didn't want to go the familiar route of pitchers with this injury, which was to find a new job. He wanted Jobe to come up with something to prolong his career.

Jobe talked to specialists about the possibility of a ligament transfer, using a tendon from somewhere else in the body. He decided to try the palmaris longus, the tendon that extends from the base of the hand down the inside of the wrist and has no specific purpose for human anatomical function.

"Would it stay there? Would it receive blood vessels? Would it become part of his elbow? We didn't know," the late Dr. Jobe told MLB.com in 2013. "That's why I told him he had about a one-in-100 chance, and he said, 'Well, if I don't do anything, I've got zero chance.'

"And then he came in about a week later and said, 'Let's do it,' and those words pretty much changed sports medicine."

On Sept. 25, 1974, Jobe drilled holes into John's ulna and humerus bones, and he grafted the tendon in a basic figure-eight design, held in place by anchors. It took four hours. And on April 16, 1976, Tommy John pitched in a Major League game again, threw five innings of three-run ball in a loss to the Braves, finished 10-10 with a 3.09 ERA that year and won 154 more games after that.

John was aware of the significance of his comeback, but he was not overwhelmed by the moment, even when he stood on the mound for the first time in the first inning.

"I knew how it was going to go," John says. "When Dr. Jobe gave me the OK to start throwing, I threw a baseball off the mound every day until instructional league. I had three starts in Spring Training, and in my last outing there, I went five innings against Houston and struck out 10.

"Before the surgery, I could throw my fastball 87-88 [mph], and I knew that I could throw that same speed after surgery. So I was as confident as I could be. I'd already proven that to myself."

Forty years later, men who played in the same game don't recall anything out of the ordinary. In fact, seeing John back on the mound again seemed normal. It wasn't until the UCL reconstruction surgery became so successful that they realized how groundbreaking the events of that night really were.

"That saved a whole bunch of careers, and there are a bunch of kids now, youngsters getting Tommy John [surgery] even before high school and college … and they're signing them like it's no big deal," says Dusty Baker, who played for that 1976 Dodgers team and is now the manager of the Washington Nationals.

"Tommy saved a whole bunch of baseball careers."

Then-Dodgers infielder Davey Lopes, who's now Baker's first-base coach in Washington, said he remembers John's initial injury more than the comeback.

"Everybody thought it was career-ending except for Dr. Jobe," Lopes says. "He was treading uncharted waters that no one that we knew of had ever gone through.

"And he came back just like nothing, I don't remember him struggling. He was pretty much doing the same thing that he had prior to the surgery."

Darrell Evans, who played first base for Atlanta and homered off John that night, calls the pitcher's reappearance "a miracle."

"Just to have a guy come back and be able to even use his arm was something back then," Evans says. "Before that, they were just gone.

"And looking back, I'm proud of the guy. Look how he changed baseball. It's a thrill to even know I was a part of that game."

John remembers that night very well.

"All the hoopla and all that, I was oblivious to it," John says. "That stuff is not in your mind when you're out on the mound. If my arm hurt, I got paid to pitch. If my arm felt great, I got paid to pitch.

"What I do know is that I had fun when I was on the mound pitching. That what I was doing until I got hurt, and that's what I did once I came back."