Cooperstown Crier - Your Source for Hometown News - Cooperstown, Baseball Hall of Fame

March 13, 2014

Groundbreaking surgeon Frank Jobe fondly remembered

By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
Cooperstown Crier

---- — 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.

“He kept asking me if this doesn’t work do you have some other way to make a living,” said John, who said that he told Jobe that he did.

John elected to have the surgery. He said that two days later, his daughter was born. 

John sat out the 1975 season rehabbing his arm, before returning in 1976. He then proceeded to pitch for 13 more years, never missing a start and retiring at age 46. During this time he won 164 games, and had three 20 win seasons, which he never had before the surgery. John, however, gives some of the credit for his 20 win seasons for playing on better teams.

Today, Tommy John surgery has become common place, with such pitchers as Brian Wilson of the Los Angeles Dodger, David Welles of the New York Yankees and John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves all having undergone it and continued on with successful careers

“It’s one of the more successful procedures in Sports Medicine,” said Wittstein, who performs the procedure at Bassett Medical Center, along with her husband, Dr. Tally Lassiter.

She said that 90 percent plus of people who undergo the surgery return to throwing the ball at their full potential, saying that the majority of athletes successfully resume their careers.

In addition to baseball players, she said that wrestlers also have benefited from the surgery, although their injuries are normally caused by trauma, not overuse.

Both Wittstein and John said, however, that it was a myth that getting the surgery makes you throw harder. John said that any improvement post surgery comes from the healing of the injury and the rehabilitation.

“Tommy John’s surgery only corrects a flaw,” said John.

In 2013, the National Baseball Hall of Fame honored Dr. Jobe for his contributions to the game of baseball.

“He just had this big grin on his face,” said John, who introduced Jobe before he was honored.

John said that three men changed the face of baseball: Jackie Robinson by integrating the game, Marvin Miller for doing away with the reserve clause, and Jobe for coming up with Tommy John surgery.

“The awards presentation is the ultimate stage to honor aspects of baseball that aren’t otherwise eligible for induction,” said Idelson.

“He seemed very thoughtful and humble,” said Wittstein, who was introduced to Jobe by John at the ceremony, who described the introduction as a really neat experience.

John said that he last saw Jobe in January when they both attended a golf tournament, and that news of his death hadn’t come as a surprise.

“He was frail then,” said John. “I expected a phone call … almost any time.”

John said that the nicest part of last year’s event was a party held for Jobe at the Otesaga. For the event, 30 to 40 physicians that Jobe had trained flew in to honor Jobe, and Sandy Koufax and former Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda also came by to pay their respects.

Some people have called for Jobe to be inducted into the HOF itself for his contributions.

“Yeah, definitely,” said Wittstein. “He’s certainly more influential than any one manager of any baseball team I would say.”

“If they have a spot for him,” said John, who said that there is currently no place in the HOF for surgeons. “He certainly deserves it.”

“I would never say never,” said Idelson, who pointed out that Jobe’s contribution had already been honored by the HOF at the highest level available last year.