Dr. Frank Jobe, a physician whose work is responsible for saving the careers of numerous major league baseball players, died on March 6 at the age of 88.
“My reaction’s one of great sadness,” said National Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. “He was a quiet giant in the game of baseball.”
“He probably, more than any other sports medicine orthopedic surgeon, has really impacted one single sport,” said Jocelyn Wittstein, director of research at the Bassett Shoulder and Sports Medicine Research Institute at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown. “He’s kind of changed the history of the sport of baseball.”
Jobe innovated and performed the first Tommy John surgery. The surgery, medically known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, is named after Tommy John, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher that Jobe first performed it on.
A medical staff sergeant in WWII who landed at D-Day and was briefly captured in the Battle of the Bulge, Jobe went to college on the GI Bill and became a surgeon. He first started working with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1964 and in 1968 became the team’s physician.
In the middle of the 1974 season Tommy John tore his ulnar collateral ligament, which is located in the elbow. At the time, this injury was career ending and not well understood. Indeed, such an injury ended the career of legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.
“Before he came up with that procedure … people had no option,” said Wittstein.
John, however, wanted to pitch again and asked Jobe to find a way to make that possible.
“I felt that he thought of me as a friend first,” said John, who described Jobe as honest and pleasant. “I felt that he would give me the best advice for me.”
After diagnosing the tear as the problem, Jobe came up with the idea of taking a tendon from John’s wrist and using it to replace the torn ligament. When he brought the idea to John, he gave it a one in 100 chance of success. He also made sure that John had something to fall back on if the surgery failed.