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The Man Behind the Name

How Tommy John became one of the most memorable Hoosier pitchers in baseball
Like in baseball, Tommy John's name will be remembered in Indiana for years to come. (Photo by Los Angeles Dodgers)
May 23, 2020

Some of the most notable names in baseball — whether past, present or future — can be linked by one outstanding attribute. Cy Young Award winners, MVPs, you name it, one player’s name can grace the history books and forever be associated with all-time greats. But for some players, their

Some of the most notable names in baseball — whether past, present or future — can be linked by one outstanding attribute. Cy Young Award winners, MVPs, you name it, one player’s name can grace the history books and forever be associated with all-time greats. But for some players, their link is one of hardship, pain and a grueling rehab, connected by one name: Tommy John.

Tommy John surgery is a common phrase in the baseball world that is heard every year without fail. The procedure itself is common and straightforward, a reconstructive surgery to repair a ligament in an elbow. But those words hold more weight than just the surgery itself. They speak of a player who will not take part in competitive baseball for a year-and-a-half. They’ll endure physical therapy, and possibly never throw the same. But it’s not often that Tommy John, the player and Indiana native, and his 26-year career is brought up.

Before his name spoke of hardship, John was a small-town Midwesterner. He grew up in Terre Haute, roughly 80 miles southwest of Indianapolis, where he attended Gerstmeyer High School.

He was a standout in multiple sports, to the point that he contemplated a collegiate career in basketball. John averaged 20.3 points per game during the 1960-61 season and helped lead the varsity basketball team to a sectional title. His knack for establishing records came at a young age, as the 6-foot-3 athlete posted 47 points against Bedford High School during his senior year for a single-game Gerstmeyer record.

But as the then-18-year-old weighed his basketball aspirations, Cleveland was knocking on his door with an offer. His off-speed pitches were major-league ready, but his fastball needed work if professional hitters weren’t going to get the best of him. His two years in the minor leagues put him on that path.

John’s name first graced major league statistical charts on Sept. 6, 1963, when he made his debut with the Cleveland Indians at 20 years old. He showed promise in his short six-game stint, compiling a 2.21 ERA.

He was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1965 after putting up a 2-9 record with a 3.91 ERA the year prior with Cleveland. But John was quick to turn things around for himself in a new uniform. In seven seasons with Chicago, he tabbed a 2.95 ERA in 1,493.1 innings pitched. The curveball-heavy hurler led Major League Baseball in back-to-back seasons with five shutouts in 1966 and six in ’67. He also earned his first career All-Star selection in 1968 and went on to finish the year with a 10-5 record and 1.98 ERA, the lowest of his career.

Yet, it was his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers that changed his career and the future of baseball. Leading up to the 1975 season, John had a 2.89 ERA with 311 strikeouts, 132 walks and 13 complete games in three years with Los Angeles. His numbers were on par compared to other seasons before his 1974 campaign was cut short. John’s final appearance that summer came on July 17, when he left the game after facing two batters in the top of the third inning.

A 12-season career was on the line for John when he underwent ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction. He was the first person to receive the procedure, hence the moniker it is often referred to, and beat the odds by carrying out a successful career after the fact. The likelihood the then-32-year-old would return to baseball was slim and emulating his prior success was even lower.

Nowadays, players are slowly reintroduced to the game with a low pitch count and innings limit. John was not one of those players. When John returned to baseball 18 months after his Sept. 25, 1974 procedure, he didn’t ease into the intensity of the game. He recorded six complete games in his 31 starts in 1976, two of them shutouts. He led the National League with a 0.3 home runs per nine innings ratio.

His namesake surgery gave his career a second life, one that has him tied for second in most seasons played in MLB history at 26. By splitting his career in two parts, before and after his surgery, it’s remarkable what he achieved. From 1963 to 1974, John went 124-106 in 355 games (318 starts) with a 2.97 ERA, 71 complete games and 1,273 strikeouts. After his surgery through his final season in 1989, the southpaw had a 164-125 record and 3.66 ERA with 91 complete games and 972 strikeouts.

The second act of his career was nearly as dominant as his first, but nonetheless more impressive.

John’s career post-surgery brought recognition to his talent. He was a three-time All-Star, once with Los Angeles and twice with the New York Yankees during the late ‘70s and garnered Cy Young and MVP support. At the age of 34, John received his first Cy Young nomination with Los Angeles. He ultimately came in second in the voting selection but remained in the Cy Young conversation for the next few years.

He eventually retired at 46 with New York to finish his career with an ERA of 3.34, 2,245 strikeouts and 162 complete games. John currently owns the seventh-most wins among left-handed pitchers, with 288 to his name.

Before his professional career required him to play all over the country, John maintained his hometown roots by attending Indiana State University during his off time from baseball. Gerstmeyer High no longer has its doors open, but his records are still remembered. Back in 2013, a baseball field in a Terre Haute city park was renamed in his honor.

Like in baseball, John’s name will always be a part of Indiana.