The most revolutionary figure in modern pitching died yesterday. His name wasn’t Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson, or Pedro Martinez. Fans never chanted his name. His visage appears neither on a baseball card nor on a Cooperstown plaque. In fact, Dr. Frank Jobe never even stepped on a major league mound.
In 1974, Dodger Tommy John heard a snap in his left arm that many pitchers had heard before. It was the sound of a career ending. Dr. Frank Jobe intervened. He invented a procedure that removed six inches or so of tendon from a pitcher’s non-throwing forearm, and transplanted that sinew to the throwing arm near the elbow. He gauged his patient’s prospects of full recovery at one percent. John sat out the 1975 season. His return in 1976 advertised the success of Dr. Jobe’s Dr. Frankenstein procedure. Tommy John went undefeated in a limited 1976 campaign, winning ten games.
Perhaps more amazing than John’s comeback season was his longevity. He posted most of his career wins–164 of them–post-surgery. Rather than retire on the spot, as just about every pitcher not connected with Dr. Jobe had previously done facing the same injury, Tommy John played fourteen more seasons. His strange durability placed him in as many MLB seasons as any other player to that point. His career didn’t end in 1974. It ended in 1989.
“I know they had to give Tommy John a new arm,” Pete Rose quipped after the Dodger’s amazing comeback. “But did they have to give him [Sandy] Koufax’s?” After enduring the career-ending injury that didn’t end his career, John compiled one fewer win than Koufax, whose brilliant Dodger tenure quickly imploded because of a similar injury, earned in his entire time in Major League Baseball. So successful has Dr. Jobe’s procedure become that misguided parents of pitching aspirants have inquired with doctors about putting their perfectly healthy sons under the knife in hopes of improving their velocity. Frank Jobe was that most elusive of figures, a human fountain of youth that allowed pitchers to throw like they did before too many sliders had worn their arms down.
Jobe’s procedure extended the careers of more than 1,000 MLB players subsequent to Tommy John during the last forty years. Almost all of the reclamation projects have been pitchers. Beneficiaries include Jamie Moyer, the recently-retired pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel, Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson, and Kerry Wood.
John Smoltz is a border-line Hall of Famer. Should the Atlanta Braves starter and closer be enshrined in Cooperstown, how could the Baseball Writers Association of America deny Jobe? Smoltz played nine seasons after undergoing the surgery Jobe pioneered, compiling 154 saves in his sensational stint as a closer and winning 59 games. Without ulnar collateral ligament surgery, which he underwent in 2000, John Smoltz isn’t part of the Cooperstown conversation. When one considers the overwhelming number of players positively impacted by Dr. Jobe–who pioneered other sports-medicine advancements aside from the one performed on Tommy John–the surgeon’s name appears, like Curt Flood’s and Jackie Robinson’s, as one that belongs on a short list with figures who revolutionized Major League Baseball.
Frank Jobe served as a medical supply sergeant during World War II, involved in the Battle of the Bulge and other major events in the European theater. He began consulting for the Dodgers fifty years ago, and ultimately oversaw medical treatment for players on Los Angeles-based teams in each of the four major professional team sports. A respected medical scholar, Jobe authored more than 100 articles appearing in academic journals and served as a professor at USC’s medical school. At 88, the orthopedist leaves a wife of 54 years and three sons behind. His professional legacy lives on in the arms of thousands of athletes.
At a ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame last summer, the man who gave his name to a surgery gave his appreciation to the man who gave him his arm back. “I think Jackie Robinson, Marvin Miller and Frank Jobe,” Tommy John opined, “have done things to change the face of baseball.”