By Freddy Berowski
Will Carroll, author of the definitive book on baseball injuries Saving the Pitcher, puts it in the simplest terms: “Since the invention of the breaking ball, there has been no more significant development in baseball than Tommy John surgery.”
Pioneered by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974, ulnar collateral ligament surgery has saved the careers of hundreds of ballplayers. More commonly known as “Tommy John surgery,” named after the first ballplayer to undergo the procedure, Tommy John himself was given full recovery odds of about one percent. The surgery was a success and added 14 seasons, and 164 more wins, to John’s career. Today, full recovery rates hover at around 90 percent.
The ulnar collateral ligament or UCL is the primary medial stabilizer of the elbow joint – in simple terms, it affects one’s ability to throw a baseball. Tommy John surgery involves removing a tendon from another body part, usually the opposite arm or knee, and using a figure 8 pattern to connect the humerus and ulna bones, replacing the ligament.
If it weren’t for Dr. Jobe’s pioneering procedure, there might only be 291 Hall of Famers instead of 292. On March 22, 1984, in a spring training game against the Cubs, Brewers third baseman Paul Molitor suffered an injury to his right elbow. That injury resulted in Dr. Jobe performing his patented surgery on Molitor, removing a tendon from Molly’s left forearm and using it to replace the ligament in his right elbow. Thanks to the surgery, Molitor was able to add 2,410 hits to his resume over the next 14 seasons, ultimately earning enshrinement in Cooperstown in 2004.
It was revealed only days ago the Joe Nathan of the Minnesota Twins suffered a tear in the UCL of his throwing arm. No pitcher has recorded more saves than the Twins’ stopper over the last six seasons. But if surgery is necessary, Nathan would likely miss the entire 2010 campaign.
Over the last decade or so a number of star players, notably late-inning relievers, have had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery – some with potential Hall of Fame credentials. Ace relievers John Franco, John Smoltz and Billy Wagner have all undergone the procedure and came back strong.
To date, however, no Hall of Fame pitcher has undergone Tommy John surgery during his career.
Freddy Berowski is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.