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Friday, March 7, 2014
A true pioneer: Put Dr. Jobe in Cooperstown

By David Schoenfield

The Hall of Fame elected Tom Yawkey, the longtime owner of the Red Sox who presided over a franchise that didn't integrate until 12 years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers and didn’t win a World Series in his 44 years of ownership.

It elected the bumbling commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who presided over numerous labor wars, demanded Jim Bouton "retract" what he wrote in "Ball Four," declined to offer congratulations to Henry Aaron when he hit his 700th home run, and was inexcusably in Cleveland instead of Atlanta when Aaron passed Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list.

It set up a special Negro Leagues committee in 2006, essentially designed to elect Buck O'Neil to the Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game. It elected 12 players and five pioneers/executives ... but not Buck O'Neil.

It has elected managers, general managers, umpires and owners.

So the Hall of Fame has honored a wide swath of people associated with the game. How about Dr. Frank Jobe? Jobe, who died Thursday at the age of 88, pioneered Tommy John surgery on the Dodgers' left-hander in 1974 and is one of the most important baseball figures of the past 40 years. How many pitchers have had careers saved by the surgery?

Frank Jobe
Dr. Frank Jobe, pioneer of "Tommy John" surgery.
The Hall of Fame recognized Jobe and John during the 2013 induction ceremony. But if the Hall is intent on electing non-players, take it a step further: Open up the Veterans Committee candidates to more than just turn-of-the-century umpires and owners from the 1920s who enforced the game's rigid racial code. Consider contributors like Jobe.

"Ten to 15 years ago, you didn't see many major league pitchers with scars on their arms," Jobe said in a 1978 Sports Illustrated story on pitchers and sore arms. "Now you see quite a few. The players recognize that what they have is a career. Their earning capacity is so very high that they are more willing to take the risk of surgery. They are beginning to understand something about the importance of sports medicine. And I think doctors now have a better understanding of what a pitcher's arm must do. More surgeons know the game; the Baseball Physicians' Association has contributed to the exchange of knowledge and to more meticulous techniques and care."

That statement is more true than ever. Back in 2012, Jon Roegele of Beyond the Box Score documented nearly 500 players who had undergone the surgery. That total is well over 500 now, and probably much higher when considering the number of cases likely missed in the study.

In Jobe's initial surgery on John, he transplanted the palmaris longus tendon from the pitcher’s right wrist (a tendon only 75 percent of us even have and is essentially useless) to his left elbow. A few weeks later, a follow-up surgery was required to arrest nerve deterioration. Jobe advised John that he'd never pitch again.

He did. John began his rehab by playing catch with his wife. He could barely toss a ball 30 feet. He threw balls against concrete walls, iced his arm and ran eight miles a day. Eventually, the nerves in his hand responded. He pitched batting practice. He returned in 1976. John won 164 games after the surgery, including three 20-win seasons. He pitched in three World Series and finished with 288 career victories.

Jobe's surgery -- and John's hard work -- made it possible.

The Hall of Fame is a museum, and while it honors the greatest players of all time with plaques and induction ceremonies and speeches, it also tells the story of baseball. The story of Tommy John's comeback is one of the most important stories of the past four decades.

I'm all for electing more players -- in fact, John himself is a pretty worthy case on his playing merits alone. But if the Hall is going to elect important contributors, think outside the box. Think of Marvin Miller. Bill James. Great scouts like Hugh Alexander and Tony Lucadello. Vin Scully. Dr. Frank Jobe.