Baseball lost a real pioneer in the orthopedic field when Dr. Frank Jobe passed away on Thursday at the age of 88. Since becoming the Dodgers' team doctor, Dr. Jobe had saved and extended many players' careers. Before the 1960s, when players would get injured, if the injury didn't heal on its own, the player would be forced to retire. Teams didn't utilize the disabled list much, so players often performed injured.
During the 1960s, baseball began using orthopedic surgeries to repair certain kinds of injuries. Several times, Dr. Jobe expressed the wish that he had developed Tommy John surgery earlier, to extend Sandy Koufax's career. He did help to manage Koufax's elbow pain to allow him to pitch as long as he did. In addition, Dr. Jobe advised Koufax to retire before the pain medicine that he had to take to continue pitching ruined his overall health.
In 1964, along with Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Dodgers' first team doctor after they moved from Brooklyn, Dr. Jobe founded the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, where countless professional athletes have been treated.
For 40 years, Dr. Jobe taught orthopedics at the University of Southern California. He was also the orthopedist for the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA).
Despite all these great accomplishments, the invention of ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery, more commonly called Tommy John surgery, is what Dr. Jobe will be remembered for. In 1974, John, one of the Dodgers' best starting pitchers, severely injured his left elbow. John was a fantastic soft-tossing sinkerball pitcher. At age 31, during a year when he was dominating the National League with a 13-3 record, John's career appeared to be over.
Dr. Jobe had an idea to attempt to repair John's arm, but he gave John one out of 100 chances of pitching again. Somehow, Jobe convinced John to be a guinea pig for the procedure. In what has come to be known as Tommy John surgery, the surgeon transplants a ligament from another part of the body, typically the other forearm, to the injured elbow.
John went through an 18-month strenuous rehabilitation process before returning to a Major League mound. John won more games after the experimental surgery than he did before the procedure. In 1989, at the age of 46, John retired as the seventh-winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball history. Although John won't be in baseball's Hall of Fame unless elected by special committee, John's courage to undergo an unknown surgical procedure and determination to return to the mound have changed baseball greatly.
Now, hearing about a pitcher having Tommy John surgery is commonplace. A few other position players also have had the surgery. Ninety percent of those who undergo the surgery make a full recovery, and some pitchers have more velocity after the surgery than they did before. Brian Wilson of the Dodgers has had two Tommy John surgeries, and he is still one of the premier relievers in the game.
Dr. Jobe was also involved in improving the rehabilitation process after Tommy John surgery. Now recovery generally takes 11 months, instead of the 18 months that John went through.
Although his crowning achievement was inventing Tommy John surgery, Dr. Jobe prolonged other pitchers' careers in different ways. In April 1990, the Dodgers discovered that Orel Hershiser, the ace of their starting rotation, had a torn rotator cuff. Hershiser underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder performed by Dr. Jobe to repair the tear. Back then, not many pitchers returned from a torn rotator cuff to pitch successfully in the Majors. When Hershiser returned a year later and won 10 games and earned the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1991, the Dodgers termed it a "miracle."
Dr. Jobe also diagnosed Cesar Izturis' elbow problem and solved it by performing Tommy John surgery.
Many people, including me, believe Dr. Frank Jobe belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame even though he didn't play the game nor was he a top executive. His innovative thinking and approach to orthopedics changed the landscape of baseball forever. Dr. Jobe's compassionate and classy personality endeared him to the players who had their careers prolonged by his surgeries. Until his death, he was a medical adviser to the Dodgers. Words cannot describe the loss baseball suffered Thursday. Baseball will surely miss Dr. Jobe, and hopefully soon it will formally recognize his contributions to the sport.
Sarah D. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.