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BISHER: Tommy John -- Who Fooled his Surgeon

Furman Bisher

Furman Bisher

When Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgeon, took his first look at Tommy Johns' pitching arm he told him he had little chance of ever pitching again. And -- by this time -- you must surely know the rest of that story.

Tommy not only pitched again, he won -- he won 164 more games in the major leagues. He has been so successful that Dr. Jobe's procedure has become known as "Tommy John surgery." It's removing a tendon from one part of the body to replace the damaged tendon in the pitching arm. That body part is known as the "ulnar collateral ligament" or UCL, if you're in a hurry.

That becomes a topic of the times. Since that pioneering surgery was performed in 1974, 83 percent of the athletes have returned to same or better level of performance. What brings this to the forefront as a topic of the times is not the success of the surgery, which is good, but that the success of it has aroused a disturbing trend among young athletes eager to have their careers restored.

Mainly, the surgery was restricted to baseball players, but an increasing percentage of athletes in other sports, football, track and tennis to touch on a few. In other words, the performing surgeons have developed a reluctance to indulge in it as a form of surgery. Its success has created a reluctance among practicing surgeons, mainly because of the youth involved. Some accident happens to a kid athlete's arm and his first thought is "Tommy John surgery."

I met Dr. Jobe awhile ago, and was pleased when I discovered he was a North Carolinian, as am I. He developed his practice on the West Coast, which is how John became a patient while pitching for the Dodgers. Frankly, Dr. Jobe gave Tommy one chance in 100 of ever pitching again before the surgery. Tommy won 164 games with his remodeled arm and should be in the Baseball of Fame, as I see it, if for no other reason than that he put his career on the line when he submitted to Dr. Jobe's surgery.

He went on to win 288 career games, pitched for world champions in both leagues. And in spite of the number of youthful athletes who resort to the practice, Tommy stands well above his mere contribution to baseball, he gets my Hall of Fame vote every year -- and shall forever more.

Furman Bisher is a dean of American sports writing. He writes occasional columns for the Citizen.