When you hear the name Tommy John, what comes to mind first, a surgery or a borderline, Hall of Fame pitcher? Sadly, too many fans immediately think of the former not realizing that the latter was one heck of a pitcher in career that spanned 26 seasons. While he will forever be known as the pioneer of a medical procedure that bears his name, John may also leave behind another legacy, one that highlights his exploits on the mound. His 288 victories are the second highest by any pitcher after 1900 who is not in the Hall of Fame. The first is Roger Clemens with 354 and who I expect to get into Cooperstown within the decade. Bobby Matthews won 297 games 1871-1887 pitching in three different professional leagues. That will give TJ the distinction of being the pitcher with the most wins who is not enshrined in the Hall. Perhaps he should get a stronger look by the Veterans’ Committee.
For the record, Tommy John surgery involves taking a tendon from a different part of the body (usually the forearm or hamstring) to use it to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow. Before the injury, John won 124 games for the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. While with the White Sox, he led the American League in shutouts in 1966 and 1967. In Los Angeles, he led the National League in winning percentage in 1973 and 1974. On September 28th, 1974 John went under the knife for the procedure that made his name famous. Dr. Frank Jobe performed the surgery and said the chances of a full recovery were about 1 in 100. After sitting out all of 1975, TJ returned to the Dodgers in 1976 sporting a 10-10 record. The next four seasons were the best of John”s career as he won 80 games with 20 victories in 1977 followed by 21 in 1979 and 22 wins in 1980, both campaigns with the New York Yankees. He finished in the top ten for the Cy Young Award in those four years, finishing second in 1977 and 1979. He became known as the man with the Bionic Arm and would win 164 games after his surgery. TJ finally finished up his time pitching during the 1989 season, retiring in May at the age of 46. His final record was 288-234 with a 3.34 ERA, pitching in three World Series and three All-Star Games.
Tommy John’s lifetime numbers are real close to Cooperstown material. On his final appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, he received 31.7% of the vote. There is a chance no one else will reach his 288 victories. I understand why writers would choose not to elect him since all of those victories came over 26 seasons, an average of 13 victories per season. However, the fact countless pitchers have saved their careers by undergoing the procedure that is forever linked to him may give voters another reason to put him in. When taking his playing career and his surgery into account, TJ is one of the most significant figures of the last 50 years.
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