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Gary Nolan one of many careers saved by Dr. Frank Jobe

Mar 7, 2014, 11:50 AM EDT


By now, most baseball fans know the story of Tommy John surgery. In 1974, John — a solid pitcher for a decade — blew out his elbow while pitching for Los Angeles against the Montreal Expos. “Blew out his elbow” is not a medical term, of course, but there was no need for medical terms when it came to pitchers in 1974. Once a pitcher tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm, he was finished. That was exactly what Tommy John had done.

In John’s case, though, a pioneer was watching. Frank Jobe grew up in North Carolina, became interested in medicine while serving as a medical supplies supply sergeant in the army during World War II (and while watching doctors patch up soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge), served as a family doctor until his interests turned toward orthopedics. When he saw John’s elbow pop, he was the Dodgers orthopedic doctor. And he had this wild idea about replacing John’s torn elbow ligament with a healthy one already in his body.

Jobe famously gave John a 100-to-1 chance of ever pitching again. John eagerly took those odds; a one-percent chance is, after all, better than zero. As it turned out, the odds were much better than 100-to-1. John came back and pitched better with the new ligament than he had with the old. And a baseball revolution began. The list of pitchers who have had their careers saved by Tommy John surgery is mind-boggling — there is a movement to put Dr. Frank Jobe in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and certainly there are few who have impacted the game more.

That’s the obvious story to recount today, one day after Frank Jobe died at the age of 88. But there’s another Frank Jobe story I discovered while writing The Machine that is, perhaps, just as telling about the man.

Gary Nolan was a brilliant young pitcher. Few remember him that way, but Nolan was a phenom in the same class as Bob Feller or Dwight Gooden. He was 18 years old when he made his first start in the big leagues — he and Feller are the only two pitchers in baseball history to strike out 10 or more big league batters in a game before they turned 19 years old. Nolan as an 18/19 year old had a lower ERA, better WHIP, more strikeouts and fewer walks than the National League Rookie of the Year — a pretty fair pitcher named Tom Seaver.

“Don’t be scared,” Feller had told the kid that first year. “Make them scared of you.”

Not long after that, Nolan’s arm began to hurt. It was this sharp pain that made him wince with every throw. He couldn’t stay out there. He made just 22 starts his second year, 15 his third. But what hurt even more was this: Nobody believed him. Doctors had looked at his arm in the primitive way that doctors looked at arms in those days, and they found nothing wrong. Of course doctors didn’t KNOW that they were looking at arms in primitive ways, so they felt sure that there was nothing wrong … except in Gary Nolan’s head.

“Pitchers have to throw with pain,” his Reds manager Sparky Anderson told him. “Bob Gibson says every pitch he’s ever thrown cut him like a knife. You gotta pitch with pain, kid.”

This cut harder than the jolting pain in his arm. The Reds — this included doctors, management but, more painfully, his teammates — thought he simply wasn’t tough enough. Rub a little dirt on it. Grit your teeth and bear it. Pitch through the pain. He tried because that’s what was expected. He pitched 250 agonizing innings in 1970, 244 more in 1971. He grew so used to the sharp pain, that he simply came to think of it as normal. In 1972 he was having a poor-man’s version of the legendary season Steve Carlton was having in Philadelphia.

At the end of July:

Nolan: 14-6, 1.71 ERA, 152 innings, 78 strikeouts, 28 walks, .228 batting average against.
Carlton: 15-6, 2.37 ERA, 205 innings, 208 strikeouts, 54 walks, .206 batting average against.

And then the pain climbed to a higher plane. It was too much. He couldn’t handle it. The reporters asked him how much it hurt. “Enough to make you cry,” he said. Teammates rolled their eyes. Letters to the editor in the Cincinnati papers questioned his manhood.

“When’s Nolan going to pitch again?” reporters asked Sparky Anderson.

“Hell, I don’t know. Ask him,” Sparky barked angrily.

It was at this time that the Reds did one of the most bizarre things a baseball team has ever done. Reds executive Dick Wagner called Nolan and said they had figured out a way to fix his arm. They were sending Nolan to … a dentist. Yeah. A dentist. Some crackpot dentist had reached the Reds with the message that Nolan’s arm problems were clearly the result of an abscessed tooth. Nolan actually went to the dentist. The dentist actually pulled a tooth. This really happened, not in the Dark Ages but in 1972. It’s probably lucky that the Dentist didn’t pull out leeches. The pain, strangely, did not go away. Nolan pitched two games in 1973 and he did not pitch at all in 1974. His career seemed over. And he felt dead.

Then, in desperation, Nolan went to see Frank Jobe, orthopedic doctor for the Reds’ biggest rivals, the Dodgers. The Reds, of course, were opposed to this … but Nolan had reached the desperate point where he would try anything. He, like every other pitcher in baseball, had heard Jobe was different from other doctors. The first thing Nolan noticed was that Jobe took an X-Ray of Nolan’s shoulder from a different angle. This was new. And because of that, Jobe found what every other doctor had missed — a one-inch bone spur floating around in Nolan’s shoulder and slicing him every single time he threw a baseball.

Finding the bone spur and getting rid of it, of course, are two different things … but Jobe thought removing it was considerably less complicated than replacing Tommy John’s torn elbow ligament. The Reds, of course, were opposed to the surgery. They thought he could pitch through the pain. It really is staggering how disposable baseball players were to teams in those days. Jobe performed the surgery. And Nolan — though he could never be as brilliant as he was at 19 — no longer felt the pain and he came back to the Big Red Machine and won 15 games in 1975, another 15 in 1976 for two of the greatest teams in baseball history.

But the extraordinary thing is how Gary Nolan looks back not at the career-saving surgery itself but at something entirely different. He looks back and sees the kindness of Frank Jobe. For six or seven years, Nolan had been treated as something less than a man. He’d had his pain mocked and his toughness doubted. He’d been told again and again and again that the agony was all in his head, that it was his duty to pitch through it, and this false aura of fragility had come to define him in the eyes of American baseball fans.

Then, this soft-spoken doctor from North Carolina came back from the X-Rays and pointed at the source of all that pain — there it was, as real as a swing and miss strikeout.

“I have no idea how you pitched in that sort of pain,” Frank Jobe said to him. “You must have been in agony.”

Thirty-five years later, Gary Nolan could still recite those two sentences, word-for-word.

  1. karlkolchak - Mar 7, 2014 at 12:18 PM

    And yet, in 2010, infamous meathead Rob Dibble was still telling Stephen Strasburg to rub some dirt on it when the latter blew his own elbow out.

    That’s a great story, and shows how much of a difference someone can make by merely having a little compassion in the face of someone’s else’s pain. RIP, Dr. Jobe.

    • flamethrower101 - Mar 7, 2014 at 3:22 PM

      Agreed, and reading Nolan’s story I am disgusted with how the Reds handled it. They never believed him about the pain and then when it was finally revealed they were against the surgery because they thought he could “pitch through the pain.” Are you kidding me? Were teams run by morons and f—heads or were we just so unknowledgable about sports injuries back then. I hope it’s the latter because it’s a testament to how we’ve advanced in the medical science world, but that’s still no excuse for the B.S. he got from the coaches and teammates and beat writers in his career. Hope each and every one of them either gave him an apology after the fact.

      • chinahand11 - Mar 7, 2014 at 11:45 PM

        I lived in Reds country all during Nolan’s career, and I remember now how the media was slanted against him. That was the way it was back then – nowadays his injury would have been addressed a bit earlier, like 1 minute after he complained the first time he would have been in a car with a coach going to the hospital for diagnostics.

  2. ningenito78 - Mar 7, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    Dr. Jobe absolutely belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now the people for having Tommy John inducted makes no sense. His career doesn’t constitute and being the guy that had the surgery performed on him would be the same as having the first football player to get ACL surgery in the NFL HOF. Stupid. But Jobe definitely belongs. Revolutionized the sport and some could make the argument he improved it exponentially by allowing great pitchers to keep pitching.

    • sdelmonte - Mar 7, 2014 at 12:30 PM

      Tommy John’s x-rays belong, though. If Jobe still had those all these years later, someone should scan them and use them in display about the surgery.

      I would suggest that Tommy’s ligament belongs, too, but he’s still using it.

  3. NatsLady - Mar 7, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    Great article. Everyone should read it.

    BTW, this was Matt Williams quote of the day. “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

    I am not sure what it means. But if it means what I think it means (it comes from a Marine), I worry not only for Doug Fister, but fur Danny Esposito and a lot of guys.

    • chad10 - Mar 7, 2014 at 6:44 PM


  4. bigharold - Mar 7, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    Perhaps they should stop referring to it as ‘Tommy John” surgery and start calling it the “Jobe Procedure”?

    • sophiethegreatdane - Mar 7, 2014 at 12:52 PM

      Like it!

    • mkd - Mar 7, 2014 at 1:04 PM

      This is the best idea in the world.

  5. skipcastaneda - Mar 7, 2014 at 1:38 PM

    I understand Gary Nolan is a pit boss at a Indian Casino Resort in Wheatland, California. I should drive up and meet him.

    • ditchparrot19 - Mar 11, 2014 at 11:12 AM

      He’s been in the casino game or a long, long time now, first in Las Vegas and now back in his native Northern California. I live just 20 minutes from his hometown of Oroville, Calif. and the old-timers there and in the neighboring towns who saw him in high school or Legion ball still speak his name in reverent tones. A lot of kids get the “phenom” tag, but he truly was one.

  6. themanytoolsofignorance - Mar 7, 2014 at 2:33 PM

    This story is a testament to a fine physician and man. Having been the recipient of orthopedic surgery myself, I feel I can thank Dr. Frank Jobe for bolstering the profession of Orthopedic Surgeon with both technique and compassion. The world lost a good man.

  7. Tim's Neighbor - Mar 7, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    Sadly I still see assholes on Facebook peddling this BS about root canals, pulling teeth and toxins in the body. We’ve begun to relapse as a society.

  8. davrix - Mar 7, 2014 at 6:21 PM

    You cannot blame the Reds. That is how the professional teams treated players and not just in baseball, football was worse. BTW The Machine was one of the best baseball books I have read. Joe is the man.

  9. moogro - Mar 7, 2014 at 9:10 PM

    Roughly one third of pitchers on MLB rosters have had the Jobe procedure. Imagine if that procedure didn’t exist. There would probably be rule changes to deal with the huge amounts of washouts in baseball as the numbers of broken bodies could not keep up with the competitiveness of the game. The Jobe procedure is one of the pillars that make baseball as we know it possible. Sounds like HOF to me.

  10. namriverrat69 - Mar 7, 2014 at 11:15 PM

    Thanks Dr. Jobe. I remember when this surgery was first done on my Dodger picher, Tommy John. It was amazing. Due to popular demand I believe you will RIP in the HOF here and you are already in the HOF in the next life. Praise God for the gift He bestowed on us through you. For the atheist and agnostic haters there is no need to respond. Just ignore my post just like you ignore and hate God. Should be a piece of cake for you. Hating is 2nd nature for you.

  11. sailbum7 - Mar 8, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    There is no doubt that Dr. Jobe belongs in the HOF. Without him, a good number of the pitchers that are there might never have made it. His revolutionary procedure allowed many great pitchers to return to the game after an injury that previously would have ended their careers.

    As for what Nolan went through, I can definitely sympathize with him. It is amazing that even today many doctors will try and tell a patient that the pain is all in their head simply because they can not identify any cause. Either that, or they start accusing the patient of being a drug addict who is faking the pain to try and get the doctor to give them pain medication. Even in this day and age there is still a lot of ignorance and general suspicion when someone has pain where the doctors can not find a cause.

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