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Half-century after namesake surgery, Tommy John is still not in Baseball Hall of Fame

By John Burbridge

Harold Baines is a legitimate National Baseball Hall of Famer.

And, no, I’m not forfeiting my Lifelong Chicago Cubs Fan membership card even if it is revoked.

Sabermetric equations be damned, the real numbers are there. They just don’t hit you over the head like those from indefinite non-HOFer Sammy Sosa, who clubbed 243 home runs during a four-season span while nearly averaging what Roger Maris did in 1961 — my bolded emphasis.

As for Baines … he hit 384 HRs throughout a 22-year career, a full-season short of 400 as well as for other significant milestones like 3,000 hits (2,866) and 500 doubles (488).

Baines played his most productive seasons with the Chicago White Sox, who drafted him out of high school with the first pick of the MLB June Amatuer Draft in 1977 some time after team owner Bill Veeck “discovered” Baines when he was a 12-year-old Little League prodigy.

By the way, Veeck is a HOFer, too.

To further jeopardize my card-carrying status, let me go to bat for another White Sox all-star who also had a career spanning multiple decades while playing well into his 40s. But unlike Baines, he’s not in the HOF — which should warrant more indignation than what Baines’ enshrinement received.

Tommy John.

Lou Gehrig may have his name unwittingly tagged to a disease that evokes dread with every diagnosis, but John’s namesake surgery (Tommy John Surgery) offers hope and continued prosperity in the wake of what was once a career-ending injury.

In the midst of his best season in 1974 with the World Series-bound Los Angeles Dodgers, 31-year-old John tore his ulnar collateral ligament in the left elbow of his pitching arm. In September of that same year, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe — who officially joined the Dodgers’ medical staff in 1968 — used a pioneering procedure that had him remove a palmaris longus tendon from John’s right arm and use it to replace the torn ligament. Four small holes had to be drilled into John’s elbow to help fasten this in place.

Jobe performed similar tendon-transfer operations before as he and several other surgeons at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Southern California had used the procedure to mitigate hardships of people suffering with polio. But with John, it was the first time it was performed on an elbow injury.

I could simply say the rest is history, but a recap is in order.

John went on to play 14 seasons after the revolutionary surgery. After a convalescent year, John went 10-10 in 1976 before winning 20 games three times during the next four seasons while twice placing runner-up for the Cy Young Award.

A one-time all-star with a lifetime 124-106 pitching record before the surgery, John went on to become a three-time all-star with a 164-125 record after the surgery. Overall, John was 288-231 with a lifetime earned-run-average of 3.34. Also, in five post-surgery postseasons, John was 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA — Clayton Kershaw, eat your heart out.

Likened to Baines who certainly had compiled better player-position stats than a multitude of other HOFers before him, John’s resume is similar if not superior to that of numerous enshrined pitchers.

Burt Blyleven, who has one less career win (287) and 19 more career loses (250), and only once won 20 games in a season, got in on his 14th Baseball Writers Association of America ballot in 2011 with nearly 80% of the vote (75% is the required minimum). Blyleven did have more career strikeouts than John (3,701 to 2,245) with an average of 6.7 K’s per nine innings compared to John’s 4.3 average — HOF voters historically prefer pitchers with “punch-out” power.

But maybe it’s high time to tell all these statistics — real or sabermetric — to shut up and address Tommy John’s real legacy to the game. In due respect for brilliant and innovative surgeons like Jobe and the health care professionals who offer competent support, sometimes the biggest heroes are the patients themselves who courageously embrace new treatment and therapy, are willing to battle through wrenching recovery and disheartening setbacks, and duly communicate the needed feedback to help make future procedures more successful.

Against all odds, Tommy John was determined to make his groundbreaking comeback, determined to make himself an inspiring example for so many others even if it meant altering his pitching style. As a result, baseball and sports medicine are forever in his debt.

Tommy John should be in the National Baseball HOF, and for that matter, so should Dr. Frank Jobe. (Both men were formally honored during the Baseball Hall of Fame Weekend in 2013 before Jobe’s death the following year, but neither were included in the 2013 inductee class)

Though they may have to construct a medical wing at Cooperstown for Jobe to get his proper due, a window remains open for John, who never came close to the required 75% BBWAA approval vote after topping off at 31.7% on his 15th and final ballot appearance in 2009. The Modern Era subcommittee from the HOF’s Veterans’ Committee could weigh in on John’s behalf in the near future. Baines got in due to the efforts from the Today’s Game subcommittee in 2019 after only reaching as high as 6.1% among BBWAA voters in 2010 before getting bounced off the ballot the following year when the vote dipped below 5%.

If anything, John as well as Jobe’s immediate survivors should annually receive Christmas/Seasons’ Greetings cards from pitcher/outfielder Shohei Ohtani, who came closer to becoming professional sports’ first billionaire by way of contract after signing a $700 million deal with the L.A. Dodgers just months after his second Tommy John Surgery.

A risky move by the Dodgers, no doubt, but made less so by the risk they took a half century ago with Tommy John and Dr. Frank Jobe.

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