Sports Medicine

Tommy John became enduring name in part by happenstance

By Pete Dougherty

Had the timing been different, pitchers today would be undergoing Sandy Koufax surgery. Same procedure, different name.

Instead, the reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament — replacing it with a tendon graft from the opposite wrist — is known as Tommy John surgery and is as common in baseball these days as hamstring pulls.

Koufax, a Hall of Fame left-hander for the Los Angeles Dodgers, retired in 1966 at age 30 with what was thought to be arthritis. It wasn’t until 1974 that John, at the time an above-average 31-year-old left-hander, agreed to have Dr. Frank Jobe perform the unprecedented operation.

“Dr. Jobe is a very astute, well-known orthopedic surgeon, but he’s probably one of the most humble people you’ve ever met in your life,” said John, who was in town Thursday as the celebrity guest for a Center for Disability Services fundraiser. “He said, ‘As I look back on it now, Sandy Koufax needed Tommy John surgery, but I didn’t know enough about the body and the physiology of the body to know what he needed. We just assumed it was arthritis.’ ”

John, 124-106 before the surgery, was 164-125 in 14 seasons following the procedure, pitching until he was 46.

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