13 | Tommy John: Tommy John Surgery and Youth Baseball Injuries
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13 / Tommy John Tommy John Surgery and Youth Baseball Injuries July 17, 1974 Chavez Ravine has been the site of many legendary baseball moments. Sandy Koufax pitched a complete game in game 4 of the 1963 World Series to clinch a championship for the team in only its second season playing in Dodger Stadium . Koufax threw a perfect game in 1965. Kirk Gibson hit a walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series. But it was a single pitch in a regular-season game against the Montréal Expos that ultimately would affect the careers of baseball pitchers for decades to come. Thirty-one-year-old Tommy John entered the game against the Expos with a 13–3 record and 2.59 ERA. With a 4–0 lead entering the fourth inning and runners on first and second base, John threw what he thought was just one pitch to get one batter out. It turned out to be much more. “As I came forward and released the ball, I felt a kind of nothingness, as if my arm weren’t there, then I heard a ‘pop’ from inside my arm, and the ball just blooped up to the plate. I didn’t feel soreness or pain at this point, but just the strange sensation that my arm wasn’t there. It was the oddest thing I’d ever felt while pitching. I shook my left arm, more baffled than concerned,” he later wrote in his book T.J.: My 26 Years in Baseball.1 John tried to throw one more pitch—another sinker—before he took himself out of the game. “My next pitch would be the last one I threw in a big league game for the next twenty-one months. I released the ball, and this time I heard a slamming sound, like a collision coming from inside my elbow. It felt as if my arm had come off.”2 “I got to the bench, I got my jacket and I told our trainer, I said ‘Billy, let’s get Dr. Jobe—something’s wrong, get Dr. Jobe,’ and the rest is history,” John said in an interview years later.3 Tommy John was born and raised in Terry Haute, Indiana. Living two blocks from school, Tommy and his friends would race home, change clothes, and play sports every day. He recalls that they would play whatever sport was appropriate Tommy John / 217 for that season. “If it was fall, we’d play football. In the winter, the sport was basketball,” he explained.4 Not surprising for a young athlete living in Indiana, Tommy had a successful high school career in basketball. In fact, by his senior year he had received scholarship offers from 35 colleges to play basketball. Although he enjoyed basketball, he really loved baseball. The choice between sports would become his first major career decision. Tommy worried that his six-foot-two size would only let him be an average college basketball player. He probably would never become a pro. He also believed that he was better at baseball than basketball. “If I were to make it as a professional athlete, it would be on the diamond and not on the hardwood.”5 John recalled in his book how his father realized early on that his son was serious about becoming a baseball pitcher. While drinking a cup of coffee in the kitchen, Thomas E. John Sr. looked out the window to see his eight-yearold son struggling to move a wheelbarrow full of dirt. “‘What’s Tommy doing?’ Mom asked. ‘I’m not sure, but I think he’s trying to build himself a pitcher’s mound,’ Dad answered.”6 Perhaps it was this love of baseball that led Tommy John to make the difficult decision he did. Dr. Frank Jobe, the Los Angeles Dodgers team doctor and orthopaedic surgeon , examined John’s elbow in the training room after that painful pitch. Jobe knew immediately the injury was bad. John had torn a ligament in his elbow. Like pitchers with these injuries before him, John tried to rest his elbow to get the ligament to heal. After three weeks of rest, he tried to throw batting practice. Not only could he not throw a strike, he struggled to even get the ball to the plate. At that point, Tommy John faced the possibility that his injury might mean the end of his MLB career. Dr. Jobe, whom John considered a close friend, discussed...


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Subject Headings

  • Athletes -- United States -- Biography.
  • Athletes -- Health and hygiene.
  • Sports medicine -- History.
  • Sports injuries -- History.
  • Sports -- United States -- History.
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