Forget about the 288 wins.
Forget about the four pennant-winning teams.
Forget about the pioneering surgery that bears his name.
You might as well. The Baseball Hall of Fame voters have.
Thomas Edward John, Jr., the Terre Haute native who stayed in his hometown to attend college at Indiana State University, stands overlooked and undervalued for his contributions to baseball.
In his 26-year career, John pitched for:
- Chicago White Sox
- Los Angeles Dodgers
- New York Yankees
- California Angels
- Oakland A’s
He led the National League in winning percentage in 1973 and the major leagues in 1974; played on the Dodgers’ National League pennant-winning teams in 1974, 1977, and 1978; played for the American League champs in the strike-shortened season of 1981—the Yankees.
In eras gone by, when more pitchers stayed on the mound for the entire game, John led the major leagues three times in shutouts:
- 1966 (5)
- 1967 (6)
- 1980 (6)
With just 12 wins short of the magic number—300—John stands on the cusp of Cooperstown; peers Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer were inducted with 287 and 268 wins, respectively. One can presume that at least 12 games in a 26-year career fell victim to a combination of error, lack of prowess at the plate, and a manager’s strategic errors. It’s an interesting point, but, in the end, you are what your record is. And John’s 288 notches in the win column stand as impressive.
It is, perhaps, the breakthrough surgery that Dr. Frank Jobe performed on the hurler in 1974 that is the most significant factor in an argument for John’s Hall of Fame membership. At the time, Jobe was the Dodgers’ orthopedist.
Tommy John surgery rebuilds the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) by using a tendon from another part of the body. A torn or ruptured UCL can immediately put a period at the end of a pitcher’s career. Only an injury warrants the surgery. It is not a procedure for improving performance.
John won more games after the surgery than before it and played on three All-Star teams (1978-1980); his only other All-Star appearance happened in 1968. To be a pioneering patient for a surgical procedure that’s become as much a cornerstone of the game as corporate-sponsored stadia. Had Tommy John not gone under Dr. Jobe’s knife, somebody else would have. Eventually. But John took the risk.
When would another pitcher have been the first if John had stepped away from baseball? 1975? 1980? How many careers have been saved because John opted for Jobe’s cutting edge idea?
Treating a UCL problem with Tommy John surgery has become de rigeur. Hall of Famer John Smoltz sat out the 2000 season to recover from the surgery. At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015, Smoltz warned teenage pitchers against going under the knife. “I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old. That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sports. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports. Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way.”
Smoltz is the only Tommy John surgery patient inducted into the Hall of Fame.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 22, 2016.
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