Thomas Edward John Jr. (born May 22, 1943) is an American professional baseball pitcher who played in Major League Baseball for the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, California Angels, and Oakland Athletics from 1963 to 1989. He was a four-time MLB All-Star.
John’s 288 career victories rank as the seventh highest total among left-handers in major league history. He is also known for the surgery, now named after him, which was performed on a damaged ligament in his pitching arm. Over half of John’s career wins came after his surgery.
Choosing baseball when he realized he would not go on to play professional basketball, John signed with the Cleveland Indians and made his major league debut at twenty years-old 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 mercurial 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 LA. He played in all three Yankees vs. 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 and induced 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 on September 25, 1974, and it seemed unlikely he would ever be able to pitch again, as he spent the entire 1975 season in recovery. John would work with teammate and major league pitcher Mike Marshall (who had a Ph.D. in kinesiology and who was said to know how to help pitchers recover from injuries) who taught John a completely different way to pitch in which he would not turn his leg and go straight to the plate, thus eliminating the chance of his hurting his knee and arm, and John returned to the Dodgers in 1976. His 10–10 record that year was considered “miraculous”, but John went on to pitch until 1989, winning 164 games after his surgery—forty more than before and one fewer in total 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.
In 1986, Mark McGwire got two hits off him; McGwire’s father was John’s dentist. John said of this, “When your dentist’s kid starts hitting you, it’s time to retire!” Tommy John went on to pitch three more seasons.
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