Updated: Apr 23, 2021
Never Say Quit-The Story of Tommy John
I have always been a huge baseball fan. Occasionally as I look at biographies of players famous and not so famous, I find inspiration. As a wannabe left-handed pitcher in Little League in the 1970’s, I had, of course heard of Tommy John. What I didn’t know until recently was the inspiration of his story. Thomas Edward John Jr was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on May 22, 1943. He developed into a talented left-handed pitcher and was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1961. Tommy, as he was most frequently called, made his major league debut at age 20. He was clearly not ready, but with the woeful Indians any healthy arm was brought up to the major league level. Tommy John was winless in his first partial season with the Indians and had a disappointing record of 2 wins and 9 losses during the 1964 season. Not seeing the potential in the young left hander, the Indians traded John to the Chicago White Sox. Over the next several years, Tommy John was a stable, if not spectacular pitcher for the White Sox, helping them to get within three games of the World Series in 1967. John’s six shutouts were tied for the league lead, and only a last week fade prevented his team from reaching the World Series. John continued pitching for the White Sox until 1971 when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. John had two very good seasons with the Dodgers and was well on his way to the best season of his career when in July 1974, he permanently damaged the ulner nerve in his elbow. In 1974, this meant the end of a baseball career. Now Tommy John certainly did not have a poor career to this point. He had won 124 major league games against only 106 losses. He was an All-Star once and was a sturdy performer on the improving Los Angeles Dodger teams. At this point, Tommy John was certainly an inspiration to many young athletes growing up in his hometown of Terre Haute, but he wasn’t the inspiration that he was to become. Tommy John tried several alternate therapies to come back from arm trouble. He was determined to pitch in the big leagues again. “A lot of players thought I was wasting my time,” said John. “Be that as it may, I wanted to play ball. I would have done whatever it took to play again.”
Tommy John would not accept that the damage to his ulner nerve was the career ending injury that it was widely accepted to be. He said he would learn the knuckleball if his fastball would not come back, whatever it took to make a return to the mound. It was then that Dr Frank Jobe, the orthopedic consultant to the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1964, suggested a radical new surgery. Dr. Jobe suggested that by taking a tendon from John’s right wrist area, he could strengthen the elbow to pre-surgery strength. Dr. Jobe’s belief in the procedure and Tommy John’s vow to pitch again forever linked their names together. On September 25, 1974, John underwent what columnist Will Carroll called the “improvised surgery”. “To this day there are few variations to what he (Dr. Jobe) improvised off the top of his head. It was so close to perfect; I can’t picture anyone even trying to change it”. So what happened to Tommy John you may ask? Well, he took the 1975 baseball season to rehabilitate his arm. He surprised fans and teammates alike by being a part of the Dodgers rotation in 1976. Was he effective, you may ask? Tommy John was 10 and 10 and won the Hutch award given to the ballplayer best exemplifying the fighting spirit and competitive desire of Fred Hutchinson, a baseball manager who bravely battled cancer before succumbing at age 45 in 1964. 1976 was just a taste of what John had in store for 1977 and beyond. After the surgery, Tommy John had three 20 win seasons, pitched another 13 years and retired with 288 career victories, 164 of them AFTER surgery. He retired in 1989 with just 17 men having pitched more innings than him, and he is the winningest pitcher not yet elected to the Hall of Fame. The return to the pitching mound and the success that Tommy John had is certainly an inspiring story to not give up, to stand by your desire and be courageous in the face of the unknown. Tommy John’s story inspired me even more deeply when I learned that the surgery, experimental in 1974 has become known as “Tommy John” surgery and has been performed hundreds of times with an 85% plus success rate. It is estimated that between 75 and 100 current major leaguers have undergone surgery and have come back to very successful careers.
Today, Tommy John is a minor league baseball manager. He is also an advocate for eradicating ALS, the neuromuscular disease named after another ballplayer, Lou Gehrig. John became inspired himself to become a volunteer for the ALS Association through his former teammate Jim “Catfish” Hunter who John played with on the New York Yankees and who succumbed to ALS in 1999 at age 53. Had Tommy John never had the surgery that resurrected his career, he would not have befriended Catfish Hunter and become so valuable to the ALS community. Sometimes, inspiration leads to greater inspiration and if we are looking for it in our lives, we will find it. Tommy John inspires through his perseverance, his outreach and his excellence on and off the mound.
DON’T MISS IT!
1. Never say quit… had Tommy John retired in 1974 he would have had an above average, but not spectacular career. Instead he retired ranked 23rd all time in victories. What hurdle are you facing that may need an “experimental” solution?
2. Do not give up on your dreams. Tommy John did not give up on his dream. To get back to pitching he would have learned new pitches, tried alternative therapies and underwent whatever surgery necessary. He employed what motivational speakers call the “ant philosophy”. To get where they want, ants will go under, over or around any obstacles.
3. If you have an opportunity to see the 1977, 1978 or 1981 World Series on video, you can see Tommy John at his best.
4. One of Tommy John’s favorite awards was the Hutch Award he won in 1976. Go to www.fhcrc.org to learn about Fred Hutchinson, the award named after him and the Cancer Center that bears his name.
5. Visit Tommy John’s website, www.tommyjohn.com , to read more of his inspiring story.
6. Consider this quote by Tommy John: “ Always give 100 percent and you’ll never have to second guess yourself”. I call this the “mirror” test. When you look in the mirror each night, you can face yourself, knowing that you gave your best that day.Be inspired by Tommy John’s work ethic. “You know what I’m most proud of? What I’m most proud of and I don’t know if anyone from the surgery can say this, but I pitched 13 years after the procedure and never missed a start. I had not one iota of trouble. I would like people to remember that about me, too”.
You may not be a major league pitcher or be facing an experimental surgery, but you can be well served by using Tommy John’s “no matter what” philosophy to overcome whatever it is that you are facing.