Jon SooHoo/L.A. Dodgers
Dr. Frank Jobe, center, meets with with Tommy John, left, and Orel Hershiser in 2008 at Dodger Stadium — the two Dodgers pitchers whose careers he was able to extend through breakthrough surgery.
No matter how many athletes’ lives he may have improved with his orthoscopic breakthroughs, Dr. Frank Jobe’s legacy in the sports world will be likely defined by three words: Tommy John surgery.
Nearly 200 Major League Baseball players – not all of them pitchers — have had their careers extended by the ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery in their elbow, one that Jobe decided to try with the 31-year-old John, then a Dodgers left-handed pitcher in 1974 who was on the verge of retirement.
John went on to pitch another 14 more years and win 164 more games than the 124 he won in the previous 12 seasons.
Another Dodgers All-Star, Orel Hershiser, came up with an unstable right shoulder in 1990, also at age 31. He added 10-plus seasons after Jobe figured out a way to reconstruct the ligaments in the rotator cuff and joint.
In recognition of his lifetime contribution to the sport, Jobe will be given the Dave Winfield Humanitarian Award by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation at their annual “In The Spirit of the Game” banquet at the Century Plaza Hotel on Jan. 14.
The soon-to-be 87 year old (see his bio here) who holds the title of Special Advisor to the Chairman of the Dodgers has retired from practice, but is often consulting with patients and doctors at the renowned Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic near Culver City.
He showed his patience by answering some of our questions in light of his pending honor:
Q: It’s been said that you’ve done more than 1,000 Tommy John surgeries yourself and have changed or saved the career of 1,800 athletes with your orthopaedic procedures. Does that sound accurate?
A: Well, it might even be more. The reason I say that, is just from this particular operation that’s been named after Tommy John, it’s hard to know really how many you did. After we started doing them, and found they could be successful, and the failure rate was fairly low, people all over the country started doing them – maybe one or two a week now.
The practice load lends itself to doing this on baseball players because there are so many more of them than in other sports – and on so many levels. I know James Andrews (a famous colleague in Alabama), who works for the Cincinnati Reds, does many operations for those who aren’t on the professional level.
L.A. Dodgers file photo
Q: Talk us through how you were able to convince Tommy John to do that first experimental operation and how nervous you must have been about doing it. You gave him a one-percent chance of recovery at the time, and about an 18-month recovery period. Why would he have taken that?
A: I think the discussion about the surgery itself was a very interesting thing. Should I have done it or shouldn’t I? Every circumstance is different. Tommy happened to be in my office talking, and we already had told him about all the potential complications. I was ready to sign his papers for retirement. I wasn’t even sure I should have brought (the operation idea) up in our conversation. I had no idea if it would be successful. I really wasn’t sure. We got to a point where we kind of looked at each other and he said, ‘That makes sense, let’s do it.’ I think those were the three words that changed the course of baseball medicine for the rest of time. ‘Let’s do it.’
He had so much expression in his voice when he said it. So, I put it on the schedule. We did it. And really, the rehab was all up to Bill Buhler (the Dodgers team trainer). He spent a lot of time in the training room, creating a lot of special exercises for his upper extremity. A year passed, he was able to pitch again, and he got people out.
But I didn’t do another one for about a year, maybe longer. I thought maybe it was a fluke. I thought we probably would never do another one again. I really waited a long time before the next one – and that worked, so more and more happened.
Q: So what would have happened if that first pitcher who had the surgery wasn’t named Tommy John? What if it was Van Lingo Mungo? Or J.J. Putz? Tim Spooneybarger? Would that have changed the popularity of the surgery moving forward? Shouldn’t it have been called the Frank Jobe surgery?
A: I’ve often thought that same thought. It’s such a nice name, Tommy John. It rolls off the tongue very nicely. I thought about (Frank Jobe surgery), too, but I think it works better as ‘Tommy John,’ don’t you? When we’d do them in the office, we’d have a player come in and we’d start describing it to him as, well, ‘we’re taking a ligament and grafting it to this and . . . like what we did to Tommy John.’ So that’s when they knew what we meant. After a while, everyone was calling it that. It’s nice. It just fits.
Q: What about the revolutionary shoulder reconstruction you did years later for Orel Hershiser. Wasn’t that just as important in your eyes — especially since it was more complicated and had so many more moving parts — as the elbow reconstruction with Tommy John? Does it get overlooked somewhat?
A: That really was something that kind of gets put in the shadows. We had great results with it, and it was groundbreaking. That was due to the advancements in arthroscopic surgery where you could do more without cutting so much tissue. That cut down on the time it took and eliminated a lot of unnecessary surgery. But you’re right. It turned out to be a great surgery.
Q: How have either of the surgery procedures changed much over the years?
A: The Tommy John surgery hasn’t changed very much. It’s quite the same. The doctors have learned how to make incisions carefully. The Orel Hershiser surgery doesn’t even start the same way anymore. It’s all done inside the shoulder, and getting there is a very different thing.
Q: You started working with the Dodgers in 1964 – when Sandy Koufax was in his prime. Do you ever wonder what kind of career he could have had if he had access to this kind of medical technology just 10 years earlier?
A: I’ve seen him many times in spring training, and, sure, he’s brought it up. He’d say, ‘Why didn’t you do that on me?’ He knows that the problems he had with his elbow were the same (with Tommy John). If he had just been a little younger, maybe we could have taken advantage of it. But we simply didn’t know what do for them back then (before he retired in 1966). He pitched at that time with an elbow that hurt him every time he pitched, and it wasn’t a good thing to happen. Maybe if he could have waited three more years, we’d have been able to do more.
Q: Is there a false perception that those who have the elbow surgery come out stronger than they were beforehand after a year off and with all the training involved?
A: That is the perception, but it’s a wrong one. The stronger reason is they come out and work harder in rehab so much better now than they did years ago. I see people all the time who bring their kids in and ask, ‘Can you fix him?’ I have to spend the time telling them that Tommy John wasn’t strong because of the surgery, it was the rehab. You had the same muscles working in the same order.
Q: Are there certain pitchers who are more susceptible to joint injuries than others? Can someone who throws sidearm or submarine be better off? Or even someone who throws a knuckleball?
A: It really is about exposing a weak area in the arm. A submariner might need repairs on certain things, just a knuckleball pitcher.
Q: One of the latest techniques used to repair a pitcher’s arm seems to be going toward bone marrow stem cells, which is what the Yankees’ Bartolo Colon had some success with, albeit with some controversy. Is that the ‘next big thing’ in athlete treatment?
A: There’s a lot conversation about it, and maybe there’s a lot of truth to it. But I don’t think we know enough to understand enough about it, if that makes sense. We can’t understand what we don’t know.
Q: You were inspired to be a doctor when you joined the Army and worked in a medical supply unit in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. You watched how doctors saved other soldiers’ lives. Do you ever think about what you might have done with your professional career had you not gravitated toward the medical field?
A: I really don’t know. I signed up for the Army when I was 18 and right out of high school. I didn’t think of anything else. I thought I’d decide once I got out. The doctors I saw were 36, 38 years old. I thought I could go back to school and do something worthwhile. So I headed to medical school.
Q: There’s been talk over the last few years that you deserve to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for your contributions to the sport. Do you feel worthy of that honor?
A: I’d be happy to accept it. I’m not sure if I know what ‘worthy’ means. It’s been a wonderful 38 years (since the John surgery) , and if (the Hall acknowledge) happened, that would be a beautiful thing. I’d be very proud and happy about it.
L.A. Dodgers file photo
== More information on the Professional Baseball Scouts’ “Spirit of the Game” awards ceremony set for Jan. 14 at the Century Plaza Hotel: http://www.pbsfonline.com/event.php
The Calabasas-based organization founded by Dennis Gilbert that helps retired baseball scouts is also honoring longtime scouts Donald Pries and Bill Livesey with the George Genovese Lifetime Achievement Award in Scouting, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland (Tommy Lasorda Managerial Award), Frank Robinson (Player Lifetime Achievement Award), Johnny Bench (Scout’s Dream Award), Al Rosen (Bud Selig Executive Leadership Award) and the Tim Wallach Family (The Ray Boone Family Award).