Pete Grathoff of the Kansas City Star wrote a great article celebrating the 35th anniversary of Tommy John surgery, including how the whole thing got started:
When John’s left elbow gave out 35 years ago, he asked orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe to help salvage his career. Jobe took on the challenge, but it was no easy task. “I was nervous because we didn’t know what we were doing,” Jobe recalled in a phone interview.
Of course, Jobe was basically inventing the surgery, so he couldn’t guarantee that it would be successful. “John talked it over with his wife and his father,” Jobe said, “and came back and said, ‘Let’s do it.'” He said, ‘This is what I want to do because I don’t want to quit pitching. I can’t earn this much money in Terre Haute, Ind.'”
Three decades later Tommy John surgery has become commonplace, with an average of 2-3 pitchers on every team having undergone the procedure, and no one is surprised when a pitcher comes back stronger than ever. However, back then no one knew what to expect and it was considered a mini-miracle that following the surgery John pitched another 13 seasons in the majors and won another 164 games while three times finishing among the top five in Cy Young balloting.
Now the list of pitchers who’ve had the surgery looks like an All-Star team (or more accurarely several All-Star teams), with Chris Carpenter providing the most recent success story following his 2008 surgery. Of course, there are also plenty of unsuccessful examples, including most recently Francisco Liriano going from the league’s best pitcher as a rookie in 2006 to a mop-up man two years after going under the knife.
In terms of overall impact Tommy John surgery is arguably one of the most important discoveries in the history of sports, and Grathoff does a nice job describing the actual surgery, laying out the rehabilitation timetable, talking to pitchers who’ve had the operation, and examining the growing number of teenagers having the procedure done. Definitely worth a read.