The TGG Interview

Tommy John

“I ask the parents who is the best pitcher in baseball right now and they say guys like (Justin) Verlander or (Clayton) Kershaw. Then I ask them, do these guys pitch year round? Of course not. So, if they don’t, why should your kid do it? Rest is part of training, I tell them. If you rest your arm, nature will take care of it.”

Tommy John

Tommy John’s baseball card for his final major league season in 1989—15 years after he underwent the revolutionary ligament-replacement surgery that would come to bear his name.

Tommy John’s 288 career victories rank as the seventh highest total among left-handers in major league history. He is also known for the revolutionary surgery, now named after him, which was performed on a damaged ligament in his pitching arm. Well over half of John’s career wins came after his surgery.

After being an outstanding baseball and basketball player at Gerstmeyer High School in Terre Haute, Indiana, John signed with the Cleveland Indians and made his major league debut at the age of 20 in 1963. Following two partial seasons with the Indians, John showed occasional excellence during seven respectable years as a starting pitcher with the Chicago White Sox. However, it was a trade before the 1972 season to the Los Angeles Dodgers for slugger Dick Allen that began a skein of John’s most famous years, first with the Dodgers and subsequently with the New York Yankees, where he posted a pair of 20-win seasons and was twice an All-Star. John was also named an All-Star in 1968 with the White Sox and 1978 with Los Angeles. He played in all three Yankees-Dodgers World Series of his era (1977, 1978 and 1981), having switched over to the Yankees by the time the Dodgers won the Series in 1981. John was a soft-throwing sinkerball pitcher whose technique resulted in batters hitting numerous ground balls into double plays.

In the middle of an excellent 1974 season, John had a 13-3 record as the Dodgers were en route to their first National League pennant in eight years, before he permanently damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm, leading to a revolutionary surgical operation. This operation, now known as Tommy John surgery, replaced the ligament in the elbow of his pitching arm with a tendon from his right forearm. The surgery was performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974, and although it seemed unlikely he would ever be able to pitch again, he spent the entire 1975 season in recovery. John would work with teammate and major league pitcher Mike Marshall—who was said to know how to help pitchers recover from injuries—and taught John a completely different way to pitch where he would not turn his leg and go straight to the plate, which eliminated the chance of him hurting his knee and arm. He returned to the Dodgers in 1976 with a 10-10 record considered “miraculous,” but John went on to pitch until 1989, winning 164 games after his surgery—40 more than before and one fewer than all-time great Sandy Koufax won in his entire career.

After Phil Niekro’s retirement, John spent 1988 and 1989 as the oldest player in the major leagues. In 1989, John matched Deacon McGuire’s record for most seasons played in a Major League Baseball career with 26 seasons played, later broken by Nolan Ryan. John decided it was time to retire in 1989, when Mark McGwire got two hits off him. McGwire’s father was John’s dentist. John said of his decision, “When your dentist’s kid starts hitting you, it’s time to retire!”

As told to Ed Attanasio, This Great Game

On Being Drafted by the Indians:

“The Cleveland scouts said we signed you for your major league curveball and we hope your fastball gets better as you get bigger and stronger, because I was a string bean at 6’3” and 130 pounds. That would never happen now—they would not draft you on the come. You have to have it now. They said you already have the one pitch that’s hard to teach, which is the curveball, and we’re just hoping that your fastball gets better and it did. As I grew into my body, I started throwing harder. How fast did I throw? I don’t know, but I was getting guys out.”

On Life in the Minors:

“We got $1.50 per day for food and then the people from the big team (Indians) threw in 50 more cents, so we had two bucks to eat on. Some of the bus trips were long, but I wanted to do this and I never complained, because it was baseball. I had a great coach named Pinky May and he stuck with me. He was an exceptional teacher and he had to do it all, because we had no coaches. We did have one trainer but he wasn’t exactly like the trainers they have today. Before one start, he rubbed my arm and then said you’re good to go. I went out there and pitched the game and then I came back into the clubhouse. He walked up to me and said, ‘You’re left handed? I rubbed your right arm and you didn’t say anything!’ I told him, ‘Yeah, but you were doing such a good job, so I just let you go ahead and do it!’”

On Sudden Sam:

“Sam McDowell was ahead of me on the Indians’ depth chart, but they said we have enough room for two lefthanders on the big team. Today, if I was a manager, I’d have five lefthanders on my team, because if you’re lefty and you can pitch, you don’t even need to be that good to make it in the major leagues. So, in 1962 I started watching Sam carefully and got to know him. He was a character, that’s for sure. Sam would come to Tucson in spring training dressed up like a cowboy, fresh from hunting for wild pigs in the desert and I just sat there with my mouth open. Sam had the best four pitches of any pitcher I ever saw in my life—fastball, curve, slider and changeup. God, he had amazing physical talent!”

On Tommy John Surgery:

“I offered a day of coaching as an auction item for a charity event and these people won it, so I was in their back room showing these five-year-old kids how to throw the baseball. One of the parents told them that I was Tommy John and asked them, ‘Do you know who Tommy John is?’ ‘That’s the surgery!’ one child said. ‘Yes, but he also played baseball,’ their dad told them. And they were like, ’Really?’ It’s sad really, because they’re roughly 125 players currently in the majors that have had Tommy John surgery. That number is going to go up too, because now kids in high school are having to get this surgery and in some cases, even younger.

When you listen to Dr. Jobe or Dr. Andrews, it’s all caused by over use. The parents think that the kids have to play baseball year round and schools now make them play baseball year round. I ask the parents who is the best pitcher in baseball right now and they said guys like (Justin) Verlander or (Clayton) Kershaw. Then I ask them, do these guys pitch year round? Of course not. So, if they don’t, why should your kid do it? Rest is part of training, I tell them. If you rest your arm, nature will take care of it—but these parents listen to some of these pitching coaches who tell them their sons need to pitch all the time if they want to be a first-round pick. It really shouldn’t be called Tommy John surgery. It should be called Dr. Jobe surgery, to be completely honest. But, my name will be forever associated with that form of surgery, I guess.”   

On Drug Testing:

“I know the Players Association would never go for it, but it should be a ‘one and gone’ policy in my opinion. Your test comes up dirty and you’re banned for life, no questions. The way it is now is wrong. Ryan Braun now gets to take a 65-game vacation. He works out and comes back next year and still has four years left on an amazing contract. Sure, he’s going to lose the $3.5 million from this year, but so what? He’s got enough money to live on. That’s why I like ‘one and gone.’”

On Field Tricks:

“When I was with the White Sox, the groundskeeper and his son would dig up home plate before every game I pitched. In the morning, they would go out and dig up the area right in front of the plate. They would go down maybe two feet and then fill that hole with water. They would let the water settle, and then they’d start throwing dirt back in. Now it was a mud bog and they’d cover it with dry dirt. When my pitches hit that area, it slowed down the bounces and made it easier for the catcher to stop them. Is that fair? Well, we were simply taking advantage of the situation. One time, a coach told me that another manager would roll out the same area, to make it harder. That type of thing went on all the time.”

On the Big Trade:

“Thank God for Chuck Tanner, Johnny Sain and Roland Hemond at the White Sox, because they didn’t think I could pitch and traded me to the Dodgers for Dick Allen in ‘72. That trade helped both teams, because I helped the Dodgers win and Allen helped the White Sox. Let’s put it this way: When I left the White Sox, the team’s radio station was in some guy’s basement and it was an FM station. And then after Allen had his near MVP year, the team had a big AM station broadcasting their games and they were paying the White Sox for the rights.”  

On Today’s 100-Pitch Counts:

“Back when I was pitching, you stayed out there until the hitters on your time told the manager that you were through. One time, a scout told me that the arm starts getting fatigued at around 75 pitches. And I asked him, where do you get that number from? And he got a little irritated and called me a communist for always questioning whatever he said. I told him sorry—I don’t just go along with bulls**t! If you can prove to me why there is any logic or research behind that 75-pitch number, I’ll listen, but from my experience you can train your arm to throw more than 100 pitches without harming your arm. Why are they limiting these pitchers to 100 pitches nowadays? Because there’s so much more on the line—like money. They can’t afford to take any chances with these pitchers today.”

On his Best Year:

“I would say 1977 with the Dodgers. I loved playing for Tommy Lasorda, because he made it fun. That was the first time I won 20 games and then I beat Steve Carlton 4-1 in a rainstorm in Veterans Stadium and that got us to the World Series. It was probably the best game I ever pitched. I won more games with my years at the Yankees, but the first time winning 20 and being in the World Series with the Dodgers, that was special.”

On Being Yanked Early by the Yankees:

“In the 1981 World Series, Bob Lemon took me out after the fourth inning and I was in shock. When he told me he was taking me out for a pinch hitter, I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘We need some runs.’ I said, ‘Lem—it’s the fourth inning! You would never do this during the regular season!’ He said, ‘No, this is the World Series!’ When he told me he was bringing in George Frazier, it was even more shocking and I was incredulous. ‘George Frazier hasn’t pitched well all series,’ I told Lemon and now I saw that he was pissed at me. I just sat down and shook my head at that point. Later, I found out that it had all been orchestrated by the eye in the sky: Steinbrenner. The Dodgers went on to win that game 9-2 as I recall, and obviously in retrospect, it was a bad managerial move.”

On a Clubhouse Shrink:

“In 1977, I pitched the first game of the playoffs and we lost to the Phillies in extra innings and we didn’t play well in that game. We were just sloppy, so Lasorda said that he was going to bring in a sports psychologist to talk to us. That was well before sports psychologists were prevalent and surely not in many clubhouses. So, the door opens and here comes Don Rickles. He did 30-40 minutes of material and we were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. But, that was the way Tommy would loosen up the team, doing things like that!”

On Yasiel Puig:

“It’s what I don’t understand, but maybe it’s the era we’re in. Here is a kid who is a Cuban refugee who left an oppressive state and he’s playing for one of the best organizations in baseball and he acts like a five-year-old. What’s going to happen to him if the Dodgers give up on him? If he does not clean up his act, they may just say, ‘Schmuck, hit the road.’ Sure some other team would pick him up, but the point is—Puig, you have a great opportunity to be a star for a long time and make a ton of money. So, just behave yourself and play the game the way it should be played. You want to rein him in, but without cutting his wings off. And you surely don’t want him flying all over the place.”