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By Peter Schmuck

 

Pioneering orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe, who invented and performed the first elbow ligament reconstruction surgery on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John in 1974, will be recognized for his contribution to Major League Baseball at this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Jobe was the team physician for the Dodgers when he developed the revolutionary tendon -transplant operation, which has become commonplace at every level of baseball and has saved the careers of countless players.

John was on the way to one of the best seasons of his storied career when a damaged ligament in his left elbow put his baseball future in serious doubt. He agreed to the experimental procedure even though the odds against him returning to the mound at the major league level were considered to be extremely long at the time.

Following the procedure, during which a tendon from John’s right forearm was harvested and used to replace the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow, he underwent 18 months of rehabilitation before rejoining the Dodgers pitching staff in 1976. The following season, he went 20-7 with a 2.78 ERA to help lead the Dodgers to the World Series and would average 20 victories over a four-season stretch from 1977-1980 with the Dodgers and Yankees.

John would go on to pitch in the majors for 14 seasons after the surgery, make three All-Star appearances and win a total of 288 games – 164 of them after the surgery.

Since then, “Tommy John surgery” has become commonplace in Major League Baseball and the procedure and rehabilitation have been perfected to the point where many pitchers actually experience an increase in velocity afterward. There is some debate whether that is simply the result of the intense rehab and the likelihood that that injured elbow was not sound for an extended period before diagnosis, but there is no question that the procedure was one of the most dynamic advancements in the history of sports medicine.

Jobe’s name has been suggested for years as a deserving candidate for the Hall of Fame as a non-uniformed contributor to the sport, but there currently is no avenue for a medical pioneer to gain induction. That honor is reserved for players, managers, former owners/executives and umpires, but the Hall does periodically add a special presentation to the induction program.

"The ground-breaking work of Dr. Frank Jobe to conceptualize, develop, refine and make mainstream Tommy John Surgery, a complex elbow procedure that has furthered the careers of hundreds of ballplayers, is a testament to the positive role of medicine in our game's growth," said Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson when the decision to honor Jobe was announced in March.

The special-recognition award will be just one more nod to an amazing medical career that began during World War II on the European front, where Jobe was a teenaged assistant to the army doctors in the 101st Airborne division.

He would go on to partner with Dr. Robert Kerlan to co-found the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in the 1960s and spend nearly a half-century as a team physician and consultant to the Dodgers and several other major professional sports team in Southern California.

This year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place on July 28 at the Clark Sports Center. The inductees include early umpire Hank O’Day, legendary Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and 19th century star Deacon White. For only the third time in history, no eligible players were chosen by the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America to gain induction.

Peter Schmuck is a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

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