From Tommy John to Orel Hershiser: The Career of Frank Jobe

Danny Salazar had it, and he’s still one of the Indians’ top pitching prospects. Vinnie Pestano had it before the Indians drafted him.

Tom Candiotti was the first to have it before playing in the major leagues. Carlos Carrasco has recovered from it. Jake Westbrook had it in 2008. Josh Tomlin’s fighting for a spot in the rotation after having it in 2012. And it’s not just for pitchers, either; Shin-Soo Choo had it in 2007.

It’s called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, but to baseball fans, it’s more commonly known as Tommy John surgery, named for its first patient.

The first surgeon to perform the procedure was Dr. Frank Jobe, who died earlier this spring at the age of 88.

John, a native of Terre Haute, Ind., was drafted by the Indians out of Indiana State University and made his major league debut in 1963. In January 1965, he went to the White Sox, along with Tommie Agee and John Romano, in a three-team trade that brought Rocky Colavito back to Cleveland.

He spent seven years as a starter on the South Side of Chicago before being dealt to the Dodgers. He’d rolled out to a 13-3 record for the Dodgers, who were on their way to winning the pennant, in 1974. But during a game in July against the Expos, John said he felt and heard something snap in his pitching arm. He’d snapped his ulnar collateral ligament, which joins the humerus, the bone in the upper arm, to the ulna, one of the bones in the forearm.

Jobe had consulted for the Dodgers starting in 1964, removing bone chips from Johnny Podres’ elbow, and became the team’s orthopedist in 1968, but he was a man of medicine, and would treat players from any team who needed his services. He examined John and proposed a surgery taking another ligament from his wrist and using it to replace the one that had torn. Jobe had performed the surgery before on polio patients, but this would be the first time it was done in an athletic setting, and there were risks. The surgery could do damage to the ulnar nerve – the thing that causes the tingly sensation in your arm when you bang your elbow. Jobe said there was a 1 in 100 chance John would pitch again – he said later that was a guess – but John, facing the end of his baseball career, said, “Let’s do it.”

John missed the rest of the 1974 season and all the 1975 season, but came back to go 10-10 in 1976. He followed that up with seasons of 20, 17, 21 and 22 wins. John had never won 20 games in a season before his surgery. In fact, he won more games after the surgery (164) than he did before (124).

In 1989, with 288 wins, John hung it up at the age of 46. He said he knew it was time to retire when his dentist’s son – a young slugger for the Athletics named Mark McGwire – starting hitting off him.

Jobe kept performing the surgery, to the point where John said that he should be the charter inductee in the medical wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jobe was recognized by the hall in 2013. More than 1,000 MLB players have had the surgery.

And for his second act, Jobe found himself operating on another Dodger pitcher in 1990. Orel Hershiser was two years removed from the 1988 season that saw him break the record for consecutive scoreless innings and win the Gold Glove, Cy Young and NLCS and World Series MVP award. But after four starts in 1990, Hershiser had a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, another injury that turned pitchers into broadcasters.

But Jobe found a new minimally invasive way to perform the surgery, reconstructing Hershiser’s elbow in 45 minutes. The Bulldog spent the next year rehabilitating, and came back to pitch in 1991. He was the linchpin of the Indians rotation that went to two World Series in the 1990s.

And for that reason alone, Tribe fans would owe Frank Jobe a debt of gratitude.

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