Frank Jobe, pioneer of Tommy John surgery for baseball pitchers, dies at 88


Dr. Frank Jobe, right, who developed the elbow procedure known as ìTommy John Surgery, with John, left, a former major-league pitcher, in 2013. (Mike Groll/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
March 7

Frank Jobe, who performed the first “Tommy John surgery,” a revolutionary ligament-replacement procedure in the elbow that prolonged the careers of countless baseball pitchers and is considered the most important medical advance in the sport’s history, died March 6 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 88.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom Dr. Jobe was affiliated for 50 years, announced his death. He had been hospitalized with an unspecified illness.

Dr. Jobe was a team physician for the Dodgers when John, an outstanding lefthanded pitcher, felt a sharp pain in his elbow while throwing a pitch in 1974.

“As I came forward and released the ball,” John wrote in his 1991 autobiography, “I felt a kind of nothingness, as if my arm weren’t there, then I heard a ‘pop’ from inside my arm, and the ball just blooped up to the plate.”

He consulted Dr. Jobe, an orthopedic surgeon, who determined that John had ruptured the medial collateral ligament of his left elbow. Until that time, such an injury would have ended a pitcher’s career. But John was determined to return to the mound and agreed to undergo an experimental procedure that had never been attempted on a ballplayer.


Dr. Frank Jobe in 2013. (Mike Groll/AP)

Dr. Jobe told John his chances of pitching again in the major leagues were one in 100.

“Let’s do it,” John said.

On Sept. 25, 1974, Dr. Jobe removed a little-used tendon from the pitcher’s right wrist and attached it to his left elbow. He had previously performed a similar operation on a polio patient, grafting a tendon to stabilize the patient’s ankle.

“We didn’t know whether we could heal it or not,” Dr. Jobe told The Washington Post in 2011, describing his operation on John. “We didn’t know whether tendons would be accepted by the body and receive blood supply and become part of the body.”

After a few months, John’s arm had atrophied and his hand seemed permanently curled. Dr. Jobe performed a second operation to move the ulnar nerve in the elbow, which allowed John to rebuild strength in his arm and hand.

John rejoined the Dodgers in 1976, winning 10 games for the Dodgers on his way to being named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year. He played 14 seasons in the majors with his reconstructed elbow, winning a total of 288 games before retiring in 1989 at age 46.

The procedure devised by Dr. Jobe, properly called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, is universally known as Tommy John surgery. Dr. Jobe, who performed the operation an estimated 2,000 times, taught it to other physicians in the United States and Japan.

“The impact he’s had on the game can’t be measured,” Lewis Yocum, a surgeon trained by Dr. Jobe, said in 1999. Yocum, who died last year, performed Tommy John surgery on Washington Nationals players Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

Other standout pitchers who have had the operation include John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Joe Nathan and Kerry Wood. At one point during the 2013 season, MLB.com sportswriter Richard Justice calculated, one-third of all active major-league pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery.

“Before Tommy,” Dr. Jobe told the Toronto Star last year, “these pitchers would just be sent home and we’d say, ‘Sorry, you’re through.’ ”

Frank Wilson Jobe was born July 16, 1925, in Greensboro, N.C. During World War II, he served in an Army medical supply unit, where he was impressed by surgeons working on the front lines.

“These guys would be operating in tents with bullets and shrapnel flying around,” Dr. Jobe told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “These guys were my heroes.”

He graduated in 1949 from what is now La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., and received his medical degree from California’s Loma Linda University in 1956. He specialized in orthopedic medicine, then in 1964 joined forces with Robert Kerlan, who was the team physician of the Dodgers and other sports teams in Los Angeles.

Together, Kerlan and Dr. Jobe had what Sports Illustrated called “the preeminent sports medical practice in the country.”

In 1964, Dr. Jobe became the first surgeon to remove bone chips from a pitcher’s elbow, when he operated on the Dodgers’ Johnny Podres. In 1990, he performed the first successful shoulder-reconstruction surgery, when he operated on Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser.

Dr. Jobe also taught at the University of Southern California’s medical school and founded a biomechanics laboratory, where he conducted some of the first motion studies on the physical stress of throwing a baseball.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Beverly Anderson Jobe of Brentwood, Calif.; four sons; and eight grandchildren.

Last July, Dr. Jobe was honored at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where many people — John foremost among them — believe he should be permanently enshrined.

“When your Mercedes-Benz breaks down, you don’t take it to the corner garage,” John said in 1978. “When your arm breaks down, you don’t go to any doctor. You go to Dr. Jobe.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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