By Rahul Lal
Tommy John is one of the most well-known names in baseball and sports, both for his pitching and the groundbreaking medical procedure he underwent to extend his career an additional decade. John talked with Seth Gold on his Gold Tone podcast, available through CBS Radio’s Play.it podcast network, about his career, the surgery and the current state of Major League Baseball.
“The players are so coddled now, and rightfully so because there’s so much money in the game,” he commented. “Back then, if you said ‘oh, my elbow is tight. I don’t know if I can pitch,’ they would say ‘well you can go home and sell used cars on your buddy’s lot.’ Now, the players go ‘oh, I’ve got post-nasal drip’ [and they say] ‘we’re going to put you on the DL.'”
The game has changed from a toughness standpoint, and most of that stems from the massive rise in salaries over the past couple decades. Players are seen more as investments these days, and ball clubs have an incentive to protect their prizes rather than wear them out.
John played from 1963 to 1974 before having what was then groundbreaking surgery that would come to bear his name. The procedure replaced a torn ligament in the elbow of his pitching arm with a tendon from his forearm. After a year of recovery, he returned for the 1976 season and went on to pitch an astounding 13 more seasons. Retiring in 1989, the 46-year-old tied MLB’s then-current record for most seasons played (26).
His toughness can never be questioned, given his history and resume. But money aside, the reason players played through pain is straightforward.
“Back then, you kept your mouth shut because you wanted to play,” John explained. “I probably had 50 cortisone injections in my elbow for the pain.
The surgery was his absolute last resort, given the certainty of missing time and the risk inherent in such an untested procedure. Taking that leap and going on to pitch successfully for years after revolutionized pitching and baseball.
“I was the first player on the planet, not just major league, to have it done,” John continued. “I had it done on September 25, 1974. On September 26, 1975, I pitched my first game back in the instructional league at Arizona, and I started seven games in 28 days… I never missed a start in those 13 years [after surgery], and that’s something that is overlooked by so many people.”
A lot of the technology to help pitchers recover after games didn’t exist then and, according to John, teams in the earlier days didn’t even bother to ice him down. They just gave a quick massage before he left the locker room. He would pitch again three days after a nine-inning performance.
Major league teams today treat their pitchers much more gently, with strict pitch counts and more advanced options for recovery. Yet Tommy John surgery is still very common. So why do so many pitchers still require it, and at such a young age?
“A lot of guys are abusing their arms early on in their careers, not pro careers, but when they’re youngsters pitching 12 months a year on travel clubs,” he explained. “It just means that they’re unfortunate, but they’re fortunate Tommy John went through it back in ’74 and the surgery is such a success now — it’s close to 90 percent successful.”
To hear to the full interview with the MLB’s ultimate tough-guy, listen to the latest episode of Gold Tone with Seth Gold on CBS Radio’s Play.it podcast network.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.