I would like to take a moment to remember a great American hero, a gentle and compassionate man, and a pioneer in the field of sports medicine. On March 6, 2014, Dr. Frank Jobe died at the age of 88. Dr. Jobe served as the Dodger’s long-time team physician. He became famous for performing “Tommy John” surgery in 1974, on—who else?—Dodger’s pitcher Tommy John. In so doing, he not only saved John’s career but transformed the course of pitching history forever.
Tommy John Surgery
Tommy John surgery—also known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction—involves replacing the ulnar (elbow) collateral ligament with a tendon from anywhere in the body. When Jobe performed the surgery on John in 1974, he estimated John’s chances for full recovery at 1 in 100. Prior to the surgery, John had won 124 games. After taking a full year off in 1975 to recover, John came back in 1976 and racked up another 164 wins before retiring in 1989. His 288 victories placed him as 7th among the winningest left hand pitchers of all times. Today, one-third of all MLB pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery, including such greats as Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez, John Smoltz and David Wells. It is fair to say that all of these pitchers would have had to end their careers prematurely had it not been for Tommy John surgery.
Other Revolutionary Procedures
Jobe is also known for other medical breakthroughs that contributed immensely to the game. He developed a set of exercises known as “Throwers Ten” designed to strengthen the rotator cuff and prevent shoulder injuries. Pitchers still use the exercises today. In 1990, he performed anterior labrum surgery on Orel Hershiser, a less invasive form of the shoulder reconstruction being done back then. “The shoulder surgery he did on me was kind of revolutionary also,” Hershiser said recently. Before undergoing the procedure, Hershiser figured his career was over; his shoulder, totally shot. Jobe devised a surgery that caused bleeding around the shoulder joint and then fashioned a new anterior ligament from the scar tissue. It was anticipated that Hershiser would be out of the game for at least two years; instead, he was back in 13 months. Prior to the surgery, he had won 99 games; afterwards, he won another 105 and went on to pitch for 10 more seasons.
“If there is a medical wing of the Hall of Fame, he should definitely be in. He’s touched more wins, more saves, more at-bats than anybody in baseball history. He’s extended the joy of every baseball fan because he allowed great players and any big leaguer to get back on the field,” Hershiser said. “He changed sports medicine for a long, long time. Even to this day, because of his teaching abilities and his fellowship program most of the doctors around the big leagues were trained by him.”
Last year, the Hall of Fame did honor Dr. Jobe, citing his revolutionary and indispensable contributions to the game—and not only to baseball. Many of golf’s greatest pros also owe their illustrious careers to Jobe’s innovative medical procedures. The PGA Tour named him as its emeritus physician after 26 years of working with some of its greatest all-time players.
Along with his longtime partner, Dr. Robert Kerlan, and Dr. Jack Hughston, Jobe invented the field of Sports Medicine. He established the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles in 1965, one of the leading centers of sports and orthopaedic medicine in the world, which has trained and mentored many of the top surgeons in all of sports.
Among the Greatest Generation
As a member of the Greatest Generation, Jobe served during World War II as a medical corpsman in the famed 101st Airborne Division of the Army (The Screaming Eagles). He landed with the troops in Normandy and cared for them during in the Battle of the Bulge. He was captured by the Nazis during the Siege of Bastogne briefly before escaping. For his heroism, he was awarded the Bronze Star, Combat Medic Badge and the Glider Badge with one star. Dr. Jobe—who rarely talked about his service—once said that what he saw and experienced during World War II influenced him to devote his life to healing people.
In a tweet sent out on March 6, 2014, Tommy John said, “He was a great surgeon but a better person. Many pitchers owe their lives to Dr. Frank Jobe.”