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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #61 Tommy John

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He was known for the famous surgery, but this southpaw was so much more than just that.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Name: Thomas John, Jr.
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: May 22, 1943 (Terre Haute, IN)
Yankee Years: 1979-82, 1986-89
Primary number: 25
Yankee statistics: 91-60, 3.59 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 203 GS, 1,367 IP, 483 K, 53 CG, 12 SHO, 89 ERA-, 89 FIP-, 20.0 rWAR, 24.0 fWAR

Biography

Tommy John might be the most famous person in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame, at least for reasons not pertaining to gambling or potential PED use. No, his fate was decided by the BBWAA in the traditional sense. Beginning in 1995, he was on the ballot for 15 years and never garnered even 30 percent of the vote until his final year in 2009.

That fact is somewhat unfortunate, as while John's above-average statistical line doesn't totally measure up with baseball's elite, the "fame" aspect of the museum should loom larger here. Baseball's history over the past 40 years would not be the same without John's courage, and to many fans (including my mother), it seems silly to exclude him. Most of his career following the procedure was spent with the Yankees. It's a testament to his talent that he survived in the league so long after his iconic surgery, and the fans in the Bronx reaped the benefits.

Indiana to the Indians

Tommy John was a Hoosier through and through. Born in Terre Haute on May 22, 1943, John did not grow up worshiping baseball as much as he did basketball, the state's true love. He was a hoops star who several college basketball powerhouses tried to recruit, and he later took classes part-time at Indiana State as well.

That was not the direction John went though, as at a young age, he learned the curveball from a friend of the family and former minor league pitcher, Arley Andrews. His velocity was not eye-popping by any stretch, but he enjoyed dazzling opposing hitters with that curve, even sacrificing hard throws at tryouts to show off the breaking pitch. At the same time though, warning signs of his future emerged. He first hurt his elbow at 13 moving up from Little League. His problems lingered, but despite barely being able to lift his arm after some starts, he felt pressure to be quiet. The path all worked out anyway, as he earned a contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1961.

John traveled to Iowa, where he pitched to a 3.17 ERA with 99 strikeouts in 88 innings for the Class D Dubuque Packers. The next season up and down, as he struggled at first in Charleston, where hitters weren't completely fooled by his curve and could hit him while also working plenty of walks. Coach Steve Jankowski encouraged him to trust his defense; his pitching alone wasn't always going to be able to do the job, after all.

John took these words to heart, and after bouncing back and forth between Charleston and Cleveland's top farm club in Triple-A Jacksonville, he suddenly found himself on the major-league mound in late 1963. At the precocious age of 20, John made his MLB debut on September 6th against the Washington Senators. He allowed a few baserunners but got through the inning scoreless, though a veteran infielder named Don Zimmer did smack an RBI single to bring home an inherited runner.

After notching a 2.21 ERA in 20 1/3 innings at the end of '63, Cleveland inserted the youngster into their rotation at the outset of '64. John's first two starts offered a perfect representation of his season. In outing number one against a tough Orioles squad that won the World Series two years later, he spun a three-hit shutout, the first win of his career. In outing number two, the frontrunning Yankees sent him to the showers after just five batters, as Mickey Mantle blasted a three-run homer.

With a 4.30 ERA in mid-July, John was demoted and did not return until September. Surprisingly, those would be his final outings with Cleveland. In the off-season, they dealt him to the Chicago White Sox in a big three-team trade led by former Cleveland star Rocky Colavito. It was yet another in a long line of mistakes by the Cleveland Indians organization in the middle of a 41-year playoff drought.

All-Star on the operating table

Due to John's inconsistent '64 campaign, White Sox manager Al Lopez did not instantly give him a rotation spot. So he pitched in both relief and the rotation for the first half of '65 until Lopez finally trusted him. He won a complete game five-hitter on July 17th against the Angels and did not pitch out of the bullpen again for the rest of the season, ending the year with a roughly league-average ERA but a 14-7 record that impressed people at the time.

John was a rotation staple on the south side of Chicago for six more years. It was a stretch highlighted by a terrific campaign in the "Year of the Pitcher," 1968. With a 1.73 ERA and a .490 OPS against in the first half, John was named to his first All-Star team. A shoulder injury sustained during an on-field fight in August limited him to 25 starts though, so while his ERA was under two that year, his subsequent Chicago years paled in comparison. He was a workhorse with averages of 35 starts, 244 innings, and nine complete games per season from 1969-71, but his ERA+ was only a little better than average at 112.

The White Sox also slid in the standings, so that made it tougher for John to really stand out. It didn't help that pitching coach Johnny Sain didn't like his mechanics, either. In the 1971-72 off-season, he was traded for the second time, going to the Dodgers with infielder Steve Huntz in exchange for embattled slugger Dick Allen. It was the rare trade that worked out pretty well for both clubs, as Allen won the AL MVP in his first year in Chicago and John thrived with his sinker on the national spotlight in L.A.

Although John had some injuries, he was a lefty starter for Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston, pitching to a 2.89 ERA and 2.94 FIP in 557 2/3 innings over two and a half seasons. Then in the middle of a terrific season in '74, disaster struck. In a start on July 17th at Dodger Stadium against the Montreal Expos, John felt a pop in his left elbow after a pitch to Hal Breeden. There was no pain, but his arm felt dead. Although he tried to throw another pitch, it was fruitless. John had to depart.

John was on the shelf for the next few months as he and the team tried to figure out what to do about his elbow. They didn't really have MRIs or CT scans in those days, so the team physician, Dr. Frank Jobe, had to just rely on X-rays. At first, they hoped rest and ice would allow the elbow to heal itself. It didn't work. He tried to have his elbow wrapped, as one would do with a twisted ankle. It didn't work. Out of options, Jobe came up with another idea, one that would change the sport.

"Graft reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament"

That was the formal name of the procedure. Jobe later found a better term.

Jobe had previously worked with polio patients on tendon transfer operations that improved mobility. So he suggested to John that he do something similar with his elbow. Jobe gave it about a "1-in-100" chance of working, but concluded that John could not pitch again without it. It wasn't an easy decision since the procedure itself could be career-ending anyway, but John 31 anyway and hated no longer being involved on a club that ended up winning the National League pennant, saying "Somehow I feel a part of this Dodgers team... then again, I'm no part at all."

So with a "Let's do it," John had Jobe operate on him. He could not repair the UCL, so he replaced it with a ligament from John's right wrist. The recovery was also unprecedented, and it offered its own challenges. At one point, John lost feeling in his left fingers and saw them turn into a claw shape due to nerve damage. Jobe needed to do another procedure to take care of that. John missed the whole '75 season working tirelessly on a grueling new rehab program to strengthen his left elbow back into playing shape and regain all sensation in his fingers.

The 1-in-100 shot paid off. John returned to the Dodgers rotation in April 1976 and set about proving that he could be just as good as he was before the operation. He recorded a 109 ERA+ in 207 innings and 31 starts, winning the NL Comeback Player of the Year award. In '77, he was all the way back, finishing second in NL Cy Young voting behind Hall of Famer Steve Carlton thanks to a 2.78 ERA that paired nicely with a 20-7 record on a Dodgers team that won the pennant. John pitched a complete game in the NLCS clincher and felt that his curveball was "as good as ever."

John was also an All-Star in '78, and though the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series in both years, it was obvious that the procedure was a smashing success. It grew in popularity, and whenever Jobe explained the name of it, he decided to shorten its clunky name to "that Tommy John operation." In short time, it became known as "Tommy John surgery." An innovation was born.

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

After the '78 campaign, John experienced another new baseball revolution: free agency. The Yankees had defeated him in the previous two Fall Classics, but they felt that the 36-year-old's career wasn't close to slowing down. So on November 21st, they signed him him to a three-year contract worth $1.4 million, a pretty impressive total by those days' standards.

They were right. John slotted in nicely behind ace and defending Cy Young Award winner Ron Guidry in the Yankees' rotation. He had a 137 ERA+ in a career-high 276 1/3 innings with 17 complete games. Bob Lemon and Billy Martin put a ton of faith in the southpaw's guile, and he turned in another All-Star campaign while also earning the second Cy Young runner-up nod of his career. The Orioles' Mike Flanagan took home the honors because he had two more wins, and that was about it. Nonetheless, his ability to handle a workload even heavier than his pre-injury years signaled that the procedure was long behind him.

The Yankees missed the playoffs in '79 despite John's efforts, but they bounced back under rookie manager Dick Howser to capture the AL East in 1980 with 103 victories. John was not quite as sharp in '80, but he still made 36 starts with well over 250 innings of 3.43 ERA ball. He made his third straight All-Star team and received downballot Cy Young consideration, too. In his lone playoff start, John tried to stave off a stunning sweep at the hands of the Royals by pitching 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball. He had the lead but departed after a double in the seventh. Then George Brett blasted a three-run bomb off Goose Gossage into the New York night that effectively ended the season.

John was again a stable force in the rotation with a 2.63 ERA in 20 starts during the strike-shortened split-season of '81. It was a gut-wrenching year for John though, as his son Travis fell three stories out of a window onto a car. The two-year-old fell into a coma, and John was allowed to stay home, making his Yankee Stadium starts but not traveling with the team. It was a traumatic time, and thankfully, Travis recovered, eventually throwing out the first pitch in a playoff game. Although John later had disputes with the Yankees over his contract and other matters, he was always thankful for the way they treated his family during this arduous time.

The Yankees made the postseason again, advancing in the ALDS despite a shaky start from John. He recovered with six innings of one-run ball in the victorious ALCS opener against the A's, paving the way for a sweep. Facing his old Dodger teammates in the World Series, he won Game 2 with seven shutout innings and came back on just two days' rest to help the struggling bullpen in Game 4 with two more scoreless frames.

The Dodgers held a 3-2 series lead, and the Yankees game John the ball in Game 6 to keep them alive. He was fine over four innings, permitting one run on six hits. Then his manager, Lemon, made the baffling decision to pull him from the game for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fourth. It was a 1-1 game, but runners on first and second with two outs hardly represented an enormous scoring opportunity. Bobby Murcer flew out, and George Frazier entered in relief, only to be crushed for the third straight time in the series while John fumed at his early departure. The Yankees went on to lose, and though Lemon's move has been somewhat forgotten, it ranks up there with the worst managerial decisions in franchise history.

Pitching forever

John and the Yankees argued over the option on his contract for 1982 before ultimately coming to terms on a deal that ran through '84. That '82 season turned out to be a disaster though. A new direction for the Yankees offense centered around baserunning and the so-called "Bronx Burners" ended up a failure. John had 2.95 ERA in late June but a bad calendar month of starts led to him being pulled from the rotation, much to his surprise and dismay. Although he was 39, it was a strangely quick hook for someone who had been a reliable starter for years.

Injuries to other pitchers brought John back into the rotation, but the damage was done. He asked the Yankees to trade him, and they came to terms on a deal with the Angels in August of 1982. For what it was worth, the Yankees did get a good return out of the player to be named later, Dennis Rasmussen, who gave them a couple good seasons in the mid-eighties and even became John's rotationmate upon his return.

John had mixed results with the Angels. They won the AL West with his support in September and he helped them move up 2-0 in the best-of-five ALCS against Milwaukee with a complete game victory in Game 1. They were one win away from their first AL pennant. Then they dropped Game 3, John got bombed in Game 4, and they completed their collapse with a Game 5 loss that instead sealed the Brewers' first trip to the World Series. John never pitched in the playoffs again, finishing with a career postseason ERA of 2.65  in 14 games (13 starts).

To their credit, the Yankees might have been right to have a quick rotation hook with John, as the next three seasons were not good ones for the aging lefty. He made his starts and soaked up some innings but saw his stats dip below league average. The Angels simply cut him in June of '85, only for him to catch on with the A's a month later. He was even worse, bottoming out with a 6.11 ERA in 11 starts through the end of the season.

Soon to be 43 years old with an awful season under his belt and no suitors in the off-season, John's journey appeared to finally be over. Amazingly, that was not the case. Pitching problems early in '86 led to the Yankees reaching out to John for a tryout, and after a few starts in the minors, he returned with a 2.93 ERA in 13 games, including 10 starts, though he did miss a couple months with a leg strain and then a season-ending thumb fracture.

The Yankees gave him another chance in '87 and even though he was one of the oldest players in baseball at age 44, the sinkerballer amazed with a 110 ERA+ in 33 starts, 187 2/3 innings. He pitched a two-hit shutout against the AL East-winning Tigers on August 8th too, the 46th and final such effort of his long career. 1988 brought another full, healthy season, albeit at a reduced level, as should be expected from a 45-year-old. John made the team out of camp one last time in '89, getting the Opening Day nod before an ugly line over 10 starts led to his late May release.

Regardless, it is absolutely amazing that after all he went through, Tommy John was still in the majors after his 46th birthday. He had 355 games and 2,165 2/3 innings of 116 ERA+ ball prior to his surgery versus 405 games and 2,544 2/3 innings of 107 ERA+ ball after the surgery. Only Nolan Ryan pitched more seasons than John's 26 years in the majors, and that is not counting the full year he missed due to his eponymous surgery. As previously mentioned, Don Zimmer singled in John's first game. Zimmer began his career in 1954. The final batter to face John was All-Star outfielder Devon White, who also singled. He ended his career in 2001. That's a 47-year gap in opposing batters, yet another testament to John's longevity.

John remained very close with Jobe, the man who saved his career, until the end of the visionary doctor's life in 2014. Hundreds of major leaguers have undergone Tommy John surgery since John himself, from no-names to All-Stars. In 2015, Braves icon John Smoltz became the first pitcher to be elected to the Hall of Fame after having Tommy John surgery. He surely won't be the last. Honestly, John should at least be in the Hall of Fame via the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. If John never gets into Cooperstown himself though, at least he can take pride in knowing how many careers he changed for the better thanks to his tremendous success.

Andrew's rank: 62
Tanya's rank: 56
Community rank: 62.5
WAR rank: 60.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP ERA- FIP- rWAR fWAR
1979 36 NYY 21 9 2.96 3.10 37 36 17 3 276.1 268 109 91 9 65 1 111 4 1 11 72 75 5.5 6.9
1980 37 NYY 22 9 3.43 3.50 36 36 16 6 265.1 270 115 101 13 56 1 78 6 0 5 87 88 4.1 4.7
1981 38 NYY 9 8 2.63 3.71 20 20 7 0 140.1 135 50 41 10 39 2 50 3 2 6 74 102 2.6 1.6
1982 39 NYY 10 10 3.66 3.50 30 26 9 2 186.2 190 84 76 11 34 1 54 3 2 5 92 87 3.9 3.3
1986 43 NYY 5 3 2.93 4.17 13 10 1 0 70.2 73 27 23 8 15 1 28 2 0 2 72 101 1.5 0.9
1987 44 NYY 13 6 4.03 3.88 33 33 3 1 187.2 212 95 84 12 47 7 63 6 0 9 91 87 2.4 3.5
1988 45 NYY 9 8 4.49 3.55 35 32 0 0 176.1 221 96 88 11 46 4 81 6 5 5 113 90 0.8 2.9
1989 46 NYY 2 7 5.80 4.60 10 10 0 0 63.2 87 45 41 6 22 2 18 3 0 3 150 120 -0.9 0.2
NYY (8 yrs) 91 60 3.59 3.59 214 203 53 12 1367 1456 621 545 80 324 19 483 33 10 46 89 89 20.0 24.0

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Passan, Jeff. The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Question of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.

SABR

30 for 30 Shorts: Tommy and Frank. Directed by Richie Keen. ESPN Films, 2015.

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