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.
Sep 17, 2014, 11:45 PM EDT
Yankees setup man Dellin Betances has broken a franchise record that Mariano Rivera set in 1996.
Sep 17, 2014, 10:43 PM EDT
Watch as new Red Sox outfielder collects the first hit of his major league career Wednesday night at PNC Park on a hot shot that Pirates second baseman Neil Walker couldn’t quite handle …
Sep 17, 2014, 9:59 PM EDT
CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury hears that Phillies have “legitimate interest” in signing Cuban slugger Yasmani Tomas, whose price tag is expected to top $100 million.
Sep 17, 2014, 9:17 PM EDT
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that the Brewers intend to exercise their half of a $14 million mutual option on Aramis Ramirez for the 2015 season. But will the veteran third baseman exercise his half?
Sep 17, 2014, 8:50 PM EDT
His worst career slump remains 0-for-32 in 2004.
Sep 17, 2014, 8:23 PM EDT
Carlos Beltran has been excused from the Yankees to deal with a private family matter, according to MLB.com beat reporter Bryan Hoch, with manager Joe Girardi saying Wednesday afternoon that the veteran will be given “as much time as he needs.”
Sep 17, 2014, 7:49 PM EDT
Sep 17, 2014, 7:41 PM EDT
Watch as Matt Duffy smacks this pinch-hit two-run single in the top of the ninth inning Wednesday at Arizona’s Chase Field to put the Giants ahead of the Diamondbacks for good …
Sep 17, 2014, 7:19 PM EDT
Raburn parlayed a very productive season in a part-time role with the Indians last year into a two-year deal, but he hit just .200 with four homers and a .547 OPS in 74 games.
Sep 17, 2014, 6:50 PM EDT
After playing fewer than 100 games in each of the previous four years Navarro has had a solid season as Toronto’s primary catcher, hitting .282 with 12 homers and a .734 OPS in 131 games at age 30.
Sep 17, 2014, 6:34 PM EDT
As first reported by Jim Bowden of ESPN and SiriusXM, the Cardinals have cleared right-hander Michael Wacha to return to the starting rotation this Saturday evening against the visiting Reds.
Sep 17, 2014, 6:18 PM EDT
Perkins had a 2.44 ERA with just two homers allowed and a 64/9 K/BB ratio in his first 55 innings, but in his last eight appearances he’s given up 10 runs–including five homers–in 6.1 innings for a 14.21 ERA and .429 opponents’ batting average.
Sep 17, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT
Stanton, who hit .288 with a league-leading 37 homers and a league-leading .950 OPS before the injury, will end up missing the final 17 games of the season.
Sep 17, 2014, 5:12 PM EDT
Forget it, Jake. It’s Colorado.
Sep 17, 2014, 4:51 PM EDT
After a solid first half Teixeira has batted .179 with 43 strikeouts in 42 games since the All-Star break.
Sep 17, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
Still not as bad as his golf swing.
Sep 17, 2014, 3:53 PM EDT
Good to see MLB make the smart call and suspend Stroman for headhunting.
Sep 17, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
The Nationals starters are getting a breather today.
Sep 17, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
Altuve is on pace for the most hits in a season since …
Sep 17, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Pedants of the World Unite!
- Video: Rusney Castillo notches his first major league hit 1
- Michael Wacha cleared to return Saturday vs. Reds 0
- Marlins officially shut down Giancarlo Stanton for the season 5
- Umpire Joe West suspended for one game for his part in the Jonathan Papelbon incident 54
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights 83
- Jose Altuve breaks Craig Biggio’s franchise record, tallying his 211th hit of the season 12
- Orioles beat Blue Jays to clinch AL East title 38
- Tanner Roark dominates as Nationals clinch NL East 22
- Chris Davis suspended 25 games for amphetamine use (92)
- Giancarlo Stanton diagnosed with multiple facial fractures and dental damage (91)
- Bud Selig can’t remember the last domestic violence incident in Major League Baseball (88)
- A couple of initial thoughts on the Chris Davis suspension (83)
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights (83)