The name Frank Jobe is pretty well known in sports circles, and of course the Tommy John Surgery is probably the most famous operation in baseball. This post takes a closer look at Jobe and John. In 1991, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote that in 1944, Jobe
was 19 and sleeping in a foxhole near Bastogne, Belgium, when he was awakened by the rumble of German tanks. He was a soldier, but not a fighter. He was a country boy who would write letters to his parents about being scared to death. But there he was, looking up at German soldiers who had climbed out of those tanks and pointed their weapons at his head.
He was captured. He and a buddy huddled together and watched as the rest of their platoon was captured as well. They stared at one another. They stared into their dim futures. They wondered what to do.
Frank Jobe chose flight.
His buddy shoved one of the distracted German soldiers. Jobe saw an opening and dived down a nearby hill. His buddy followed. They rolled to a road, where they spotted an oncoming truck. Without looking closely, they jumped on.
“I didn’t know if it was one of their trucks or our trucks,” Jobe recalled, smiling. “Looking back, I guess I was pretty lucky it was one of our trucks.”
It is no accident that nearly 50 years later, if you’re a pitcher and your livelihood depends on somebody cutting into your shoulder, this is the guy you want holding the scalpel. . . .
He never planned to be part of any world that involved sports.
He rode the bench with his Greensboro, N.C., high school baseball team. He wanted to play football, but he was forced to quit when the managers wouldn’t give him pants that fit.
When he joined the Army’s 101st Airborne Division after high school in 1943, it was not as a fighting man, but as a medical records clerk.
He found himself stationed in Europe with no more battle know-how than basic training. It was there, watching and working with doctors on the front lines, that he decided he wanted to become one of them.
“These guys would be operating in tents with bullets and shrapnel flying around,” Jobe recalled. “There was tremendous noise from the shells going off. There was blood everywhere. These guys became my real heroes.”
Jobe also picked up a principle that he adheres to today, as irritating as it might be to Dodger fans. He will treat any athlete who seeks his help, no matter if it will help that athlete’s team beat the Dodgers.
“If a soldier was wounded, those doctors over there took care of him, even if he was the enemy,” Jobe said. “I consider myself a doctor for individuals, not teams. You don’t use medicine as a means of winning.”
Despite his brief capture and frequent jaunts behind enemy lines, Jobe says he was not even scratched in Europe, which only strengthened his resolve for a career in medicine. After returning home, he attended a junior college in Tennessee, then came to the Los Angeles area to attend La Sierra College and Loma Linda Medical School. After spending three years as a general practitioner to pay off his school loans, he did his orthopedic residency at Los Angeles County Hospital, where he met orthopedic specialist Robert Kerlan.
“I told Dr. Kerlan I wanted to work for him,” Jobe recalled. “He asked me how much salary I wanted. I told him I only wanted what I would make on each patient.”
They called themselves the Southwestern Orthopaedic Medical Group then. Today it is known simply as Kerlan-Jobe, and features 16 doctors and hundreds of patients. The clinic serves most of Los Angeles’ major sports teams, but Jobe concentrates on the Dodgers, who have given him the title of medical director.
Jobe was happy to work in the shadow of the more established Kerlan, but in 1974 he earned prominence by becoming the first doctor to reconstruct a pitching elbow through the use of a tendon transplant. The elbow belonged to Tommy John, and Jobe’s life has not been the same since that operation.
Here’s a description of how the Tommy John surgery came to happen:
Chris Jobe said his dad, who turns 87 today, was performing the surgery in 40 minutes at the end of his career. The first one took three hours, just because it was unplowed ground, if you will.
“But Tommy’s attitude was the special thing,” Frank Jobe said. “He didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘Let’s do it.'”
Options were gone. Trainer Bill Buhler had actually taped up his elbow, as he would an ankle, to allow John to grunt the ball 60 feet, 6 inches. But John knew he couldn’t get major league outs.
Vin Scully watched John run endless, wishful laps in the Astrodome before a game and wondered how John could push this boulder back to normalcy.
Yet John trusted Jobe. The doctor had opened up his elbow in 1972, to clean out bone chips after John had hurt himself sliding. “I was absolutely petrified before that surgery,” John said.
Jobe told John that the new surgery “might” restore his career. “I had been the valedictorian in my high school class,” John said. “I knew might was better than never. There was no downside risk.”
But Jobe also brought in Herb Stark, a hand surgeon who had performed tendon transfers, and other experts, too.
“That’s because I don’t know what I’m doing,” Jobe said.
“I knew right then that’s why I wanted him operating,” John said Sunday. “He admitted to being human.”
Jobe transferred the Palmaris longus [tendon], located in the wrist, and made it into a ligament. figuring it would regenerate itself.
John missed 1975. His first post-op game was a loss, five tentative innings against Atlanta. But he went seven in each of the next three outings and got an L.A. standing ovation when he beat the Pirates on April 26, 1976. “I felt like jumping over the fence,” he said.
And another profile of Jobe’s work:
In 1973, Jobe, who has created a series of widely used shoulder and arm exercises for baseball players, gained attention when he transplanted a tendon from one of John’s arms to the other to repair a torn ligament in his elbow – and save his pitching career.
“The operation was one we developed. He had to have an operation because he couldn’t pitch the way he was. The principle (transplanting a tendon) was good; it’s been used on polio patients,” Jobe said. “He recognized there was no other option if he was going to play.”
“The field of sports medicine is becoming more sophisticated in its approach to diagnosis and treatment,” said Kerlan, team doctor to the Lakers, the Los Angeles Rams and the California Angels and consultant to several other organizations.
One of the biggest medical boons of recent times has been the arthroscope. By inserting a fiber-optic tube down a one-quarter inch incision, doctors can study elbow or knee injuries, for example, without surgery. If an operation is needed, surgeons guided by the scope generally can perform it on an outpatient basis.
“When I first started doing sports medicine, any pitcher who had a scar on his elbow was through. It just seemed like they didn’t want to be operated on for any reason,” said Jobe, physician to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the PGA. “Now they’re more willing to accept it as one of the options.”
As a reward for keeping him whole through thousands of races, the 55-year-old [jockey Bill] Shoemaker presented Kerlan with one of his original whips. The brown-leather whip hangs in the doctor’s office, alongside autographed game balls, ceremonial World Series bats, hockey sticks and team trophies. An old photograph shows Shoemaker, on crutches, and Kerlan standing together.
Among other injuries, Shoemaker fractured his femur in 1968 and his pelvis the following year, when a horse fell on him.
According to Kerlan, care and treatment geared to athletes is a relatively new medical speciality.
Thirty years ago, when an athlete got knocked out, “they put you back in whenever you woke up,” the 64-year-old surgeon said. “That still happens. It shouldn’t, though.”
Kerlan considers Koufax to be the first patient to have focused attention to the special needs of athletes, explaining: “He had enough stature so that attention was brought to his care.
“I remember it was an April Fool’s Day and they (the Dodgers) were in Florida and I was here and Buzzie (Bavasi, the club’s general manager) called and said, ‘Koufax’s elbow is as big as a cantaloupe.’ I said ‘Yeah, April Fool’ and hung up. He called back right away and said ‘Look, this isn’t any joke.’
“They sent Sandy back here and we made the diagnosis of his arthritic elbow and treated it for several years while he continued to play.”
An accomplished high school athlete in Minnesota, Kerlan’s sporting days at UCLA were cut short when congenital – and ultimately crippling – arthritis began affecting him in the late 1930s.
“I got into orthopedics and wanted to subspecialize in sports medicine, but there wasn’t any such thing. It was kind of primitive in those days,” said Kerlan, who relies on crutches and no longer peforms surgery.
In 1965, Kerlan found his focus on treating athletes in such demand that he became partners with Jobe, now 61.
Their clinic has grown to 12 physicians – backed by about 90 staff members – who treat a steady stream of sports figures from across the country and as far away as Japan. They also see their share of “weekend athletes” and non-athletes with orthopedic problems.
In addition, the facility provides doctors for free clinics for local school athletes and for the Biomechanics Laboratory that performs research at next-door Centinela Hospital.
And in closing, two quotes from Frank Jobe. On the abuse a pitcher does to his arm: “When you’re throwing a baseball, you throw it to the maximum your joint will tolerate. If you go beyond that, you get micro-tears in the tendon. When there are enough of these, the tendon begins breaking down faster than Mother Nature builds it up.”
On a way for baseball to limit the incidence of injuries: “Baseball needs a structured training program with lots of instruction regarding mechanics and technique. Baseball demands a different type of training than football. Baseball needs a highly supervised program using light weights in multiple repetitions. Some teams have hired former football weight people. I think that’s a mistake. You bulk up players and they don’t play as well. The end result is worse than if you had not done anything at all.”