The greatest game-changer not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame never hit a home run. Never stole a base or was picked off one. Never committed a balk, issued a walk or talked the talk. He never chewed tobacco in a dugout much less shoved a shaving cream pie in the face of a teammate.
Why, would you believe the guy never played a single inning let alone an entire major league game?
But name one person who is responsible for more victories than Dr. Frank Jobe in our lifetimes. Go ahead, I double dog dare ya.
Dr. Jobe passed away at 88 years of age the other day. You may know him as the first physician to perform Tommy John surgery. What you might not know is that nearly one-third of all major league pitchers have had the procedure done at least once in their careers. From to John Smoltz to Billy Wagner, Stephen Strasberg to Joe Nathan, the list is as long as my right arm. Rest assured that nobody has the patients of Jobe.
If Mariano Rivera holds the record for the most saves in a career, then Dr. Jobe has saved the most careers – period. If not for him, thousands of pitchers and position players at all levels would have called it quits prematurely. And many of them would not be the millionaires they are today.
“Jobe initiated all of the things that have made elbow injuries both commonly recognized and treatable,” noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews told Investor’s Business Daily a few years ago.
“The impact he has had on the game can’t be measured,” longtime Los Angels Angels team physician Lewis Yocum said before he passed away last year.
Too bad the Hall of Fame selectors don’t recognize a Jobe well done.
In Cooperstown, N.Y., you’ll see plaques for the greatest players, managers, umpires, executives and pioneers in baseball history. What you won’t see is one for the Babe Ruth of sports medicine. Check that. Babe Ruth was the Dr. Jobe of outfielders. Because if one career is the equivalent of a home run, then Dr. Jobe launched a lot more than 714 of them. If anything, he was too successful. So hopeful are kids and their parents that they’ve become too eager to have the surgery in recent years.
“Baseball lost a great man and Tommy John lost a great friend,” John said in a statement. “There are a lot of pitchers in baseball who should celebrate his life and what he did for the game of baseball.”
Finally, in the the bottom of the ninth inning, the Hall of Fame recognized Dr. Jobe for his contributions at Doubleday Field last summer. So many former players and executives patted his arm and shook his hand before and after the ceremony, the poor guy almost needed Tommy John surgery himself. His wife, children, grandchildren and close friends were there. So was John, whose career he helped resurrect four decades earlier.
“We did a little bit of surgery for him,” Jobe said graciously at the time. “But the man himself did the hard work. He developed a rehabilitation program that stood the test of time.”
Yet no sooner did Dr. Jobe arrive at Cooperstown than he was out the door for the last time. For months, a group that included John and Los Angeles Dodgers greats Orel Hershiser, Sandy Koufax and Vin Scully had lobbied for his Hall of Fame induction. Shortly after the tribute, they decided noting more could be done. “After further discussion and consideration, we have decided to conclude the campaign for Dr. Jobe’s Hall of Fame induction on the high note of his commendation at Cooperstown earlier this year,” they announced on their website. “We would like to respectfully thank the Hall of Fame committee for their recognition of Dr. Jobe as a pioneer in the medicinal field, and we remain hopeful that they will find a way to provide the ultimate honor: induction.”
Baseball moves slower than a ketchup spill, if you haven’t noticed, so the Chicago Cubs are more likely to win a World Series before Dr. Jobe gains his rightful place in Cooperstown. That means more casual baseball fans will never know what he accomplished in past and the lives he will continue to touch even after he’s gone.
People won’t know about Dr. Jobe’s courage, expertise and vision, all of which allowed John and so many others to make a remarkable comebacks and change baseball forever.
In 1974, John was a big shooter in the Dodgers rotation. At midseason, he was on a pace to win 23 games, a Cy Young Award favorite. That changed one horrific night in Los Angeles, where he came apart all of a sudden. Literally. He had torn a ligament in his left arm, it was discovered, which was akin to a death sentence for pitchers at the time.
At 31, John might as well have announced his retirement right then and there. As a partner of Dr. James Kerlan, the Dodgers team physician, Dr. Jobe had a better ide even if it was a longshot. Tendons had been moved from one body part to re-enforce another, right? Could the same be done with ligaments? Dr. Jobe cautioned that the success rate was 1 percent – 5 percent tops – but with a pregnant wife and no career options, John agreed that it was worth a try. What followed were two of the most significant medical procedures in sports history – one to transplant a tendon from his right wrist to his bum elbow, the other to move the nerve to the back of the latter.
John was meticulous in his rehabilitation program, which played no small role in the process. When the veteran returned to the mound 18 months later, his bionic arm deadened bats and dropped jaws at the same time. As Pete Rose said famously at the time, “I know they had to give Tommy John a new arm, but did they have to give him Koufax’s?” The southpaw went on win 164 more games in the next 16 seasons.
The procedure should be have been known as Frank Jobe surgery all these years, except that the person who conceived it wouldn’t take an extra penny let alone credit for it. Then again, the good doctor was so modest that he would politely decline autograph requests. “It’s the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction while using the palmaris longus tendon,” he explained to the Orange County Register two few years ago. “That’s why they call it Tommy John surgery.” Not only did John come out of a dire situation with a new lease on life but his own legacy as well.
People also won’t know how Dr. Jobe raised Hershiser from the baseball dead.
In 1990, two years removed from a Cy Young Award performance, Hershiser suffered ligament and cartilage damage in his right arm that was sure to cut short his career. Dr. Jobe recommended a less traditional approach, one that no athlete had tried before. He devised a delicate procedure that required state-of-the-art equipment to attach the ligament to the bone. Thirteen months later, Hershisher was back on the mound, not quite Cy Young again but not Cy Old, either.
“Just think of all the players Dr. Jobe has put back on the field for fans to enjoy,” said Hershiser, who went on to pitch 10 more seasons. “Not many people in the game have made his kind of contribution.”
Haven’t we’ve take this man for granted too long?
John never forgot the person who saved his career and made nearly $5 million for him and his family in the process. In fact, a few days before Dr. Jobe passed away, John sent an email to him. “I told him, ‘If I get into the Hall of Fame, I want your butt standing next to me,’” John recalled. “He was one of the most important people in my career.”
Unfortunately, no physician can pull off that kind of comeback, but I have a creative idea of my own. John has been off the Hall of Fame ballot for five years, but the Expansion Era Committee can consider him again. After all, the guy does rank 26th in victories (288) and 46th in Wins Above Replacement (59.0) among pitchers in major league history. While they’re at it, the committee can work to get Dr. Jobe on the ballot with him. If both were to be inducted into the Hall Fame in the same year, how cool would that be?
Hey, operations with an expected 1 percent success rate have been known to work before, you know.