Cutting Edge Dr. Frank Jobe Has Seen His Elbow-Reconstruction Procedure on Tommy John Go from a Radical Idea to the Standard on Helping Extend the Careers of Baseball Players - and Other Athletes

Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), January 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Cutting Edge Dr. Frank Jobe Has Seen His Elbow-Reconstruction Procedure on Tommy John Go from a Radical Idea to the Standard on Helping Extend the Careers of Baseball Players - and Other Athletes


No matter how many athletes' lives he might have improved with his orthoscopic breakthroughs, Dr. Frank Jobe's legacy in the sports world will be defined by three words: Tommy John surgery.

Nearly 200 Major League Baseball players - not all of them pitchers - have had their careers extended by the ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery in their elbow, which Jobe decided to try with the 31-year-old John when he was a Dodgers left-handed pitcher in 1974 and on the verge of retirement.

John went on to pitch another 14 years and win 164 more games, more than the 124 he won in the previous 12 seasons.

Another Dodgers All-Star, Orel Hershiser, came up with an unstable right shoulder in 1990, also at age 31. He added 10-plus seasons after Jobe figured out a way to reconstruct the ligaments in the rotator cuff and joint.

In recognition of his contribution to the sport, the soon-to-be 87-year-old Jobe will be given the Dave Winfield Humanitarian Award by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation at their annual "In The Spirit of the Game" banquet Saturday at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Jobe, who still holds the title of special advisor to the chairman of the Dodgers, has retired from his medical practice but often consults with patients and doctors at the renowned Kerlan- Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic near Culver City.

He showed his patience by knifing his way through some of our non- invasive questions in light of his pending honor:

QUESTION: It's been said you've done more than 1,000 Tommy John surgeries yourself and have changed or saved the career of 1,800 athletes with your orthopaedic procedures. Does that sound accurate?

ANSWER: Well, it might even be more. The reason I say that, is just from this particular operation that's been named after Tommy John, it's hard to know really how many you did. After we started doing them and found they could be successful, and the failure rate was fairly low, people all over the country started doing them - maybe one or two a week now.

The practice load lends itself to doing this on baseball players because there are so many more of them than in other sports - and on so many levels. I know James Andrews (a famous colleague in Alabama), who works for the Cincinnati Reds, does many operations for those who aren't on the professional level.

Q: Talk us through how you were able to convince Tommy John to do that first experimental operation and how nervous you must have been about doing it. You gave him a 1 percent chance of recovery at the time, and about an 18-month recovery period. Why would he have taken that?

A: I think the discussion about the surgery itself was a very interesting thing. Should I have done it or shouldn't I? Every circumstance is different. Tommy happened to be in my office talking, and we already had told him about all the potential complications. I was ready to sign his papers for retirement. I wasn't even sure I should have brought (the operation idea) up in our conversation. I had no idea if it would be successful. I really wasn't sure. We got to a point where we kind of looked at each other and he said, "That makes sense, let's do it." I think those were the three words that changed the course of baseball medicine for the rest of time. "Let's do it."

He had so much expression in his voice when he said it.

So, I put it on the schedule. We did it. And really, the rehab was all up to Bill Buhler (the Dodgers team trainer). He spent a lot of time in the training room, creating a lot of special exercises for his upper extremity. A year passed, he was able to pitch again, and he got people out.

But I didn't do another one for about a year, maybe longer. I thought maybe it was a fluke. I thought we probably would never do another one again. I really waited a long time before the next one - and that worked, so more and more happened. …

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