Within the space of the past week Kris Medlin and Brandon Beachy of Atlanta and Jarrod Parker of Oakland had or were scheduled to have their second elbow reconstruction operations. Like approximately 20 other pitchers, because they had previously experienced the operation, they knew what to expect – a long, grueling rehabilitation along with a season off.
What they and most others didn’t know is that the pitcher for whom the operation is named, Tommy John, had two operations himself.
“There was a second surgery but no one knows that,” Sally John revealed last week. “The first surgery was a failure. His ring finger and little finger were dying.”
Dr. Frank Jobe, the orthopedist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, John’s team, performed the initial operation Sept. 25, 1974. Jobe did the second one Dec. 17, Sally John said. The Dodgers never announced the second operation. They didn’t include it in John’s biography in their 1975 media guide or in the guide for 1976, the season of the left-hander’s comeback.
Jobe’s death March 6 at the age of 88 has prompted a lot of talk about his surgical achievement. His first patient, John, could not be reached for comment on his previously undisclosed second surgery.
“It wasn’t secret; they just never talked about it,” Sally John said. “Tommy never said it. I would have said it, but he didn’t.”
Dr. Jobe, she said, spoke at orthopedic conventions, “but it was never mentioned. I thought because it was new they’d talk about it, but they didn’t.”
Sally John said she guessed that they didn’t talk about the second surgery because they thought “it might make Dr. Jobe look bad, might make it look like he screwed up.”
Whatever the reason for the silence on the second surgery, Dr. Jobe’s revolutionary work was supremely successful and has salvaged the careers of hundreds of pitchers, including John, who pitched 15 years beyond the double operation, making his last appearance four days after his 46th birthday.
Sally John, who was divorced from Tommy last July, recalled details of both operations as if they were done yesterday, not 40 years ago this year.
Explaining the need for the second procedure, Sally said in one of two telephone interviews from her home in South Carolina, “Scar tissue had formed as a collar around the ulnar nerve and it had cut off circulation so he had no feeling in his little finger and his ring finger.
“They cleaned it out and placed the nerve at the top of the elbow instead of in the channel where it had been placed in the original operation. They moved it and there was less chance of getting scar tissue. That was the most important thing they learned from his surgery. He could have come out of it with a crumpled arm. That was the scariest part.”
No such trouble ensued after that correction. John successfully spent the next year rehabilitating the elbow with the new ligament. Sally John related the story behind that new ligament.
“They had three ligaments laid out ready to put in,” she said, “one Teflon, one a cadaver and the third would be taken out of Tommy’s body from his wrist area or his hip if he had it. They used the one out of the wrist.” Actually, the tendon came from John’s right forearm.
“I said throw out the cadaver,” Sally related, “because I wasn’t going to sleep next to it.”
The tendon Jobe used, she said, “pops out when you touch your little finger to the thumb. It doesn’t hurt the mobility or any other function.”
“Dr. Jobe said his tendon looked like a bowl of spaghetti,” she added. “It didn’t break in half. It was like it exploded.”
Sally John said she stood right outside the operating room during the operation. “There were eight doctors besides Dr. Jobe since they had not done this before,” she said.
She had an even better viewing perspective for John’s rehabilitation because she played an integral role in it.
“I rubbed baby oil on his fingers and kept rubbing his fingers and massaging them,” she said. “We had Silly Putty all over the house and he squeezed on it all day long. We used Silly Putty and rubber balls and rubber bands, and we tightened the rubber bands as he got stronger.’’
Sally, though, took an even more active role. “He threw to me,” she said. “I was pregnant and I put pillows all over my body. He would throw when he got home from the ball park, which would be about 1 o’clock in the morning. One night our neighbor came over and we apologized for making noise so late at night. He said ‘I’m not upset about that. I’m upset that you didn’t ask me to catch.’”
It has been suggested that the surgery should be named after Jobe and not John, but Sally John disagreed. It was Jobe himself, she said, who named it Tommy John surgery.
“Dr. Jobe named it Tommy John surgery right after the operation,” she recalled. “He said the reason I named it after Tommy was without his work ethic and what he did to rehab it, it would not have succeeded. He said I could have done it on any pitcher, but I know Tommy and I know you and I know Tommy would do anything to work to get back. Dr. Jobe told me he knew he’d be this kind of patient.”