His name is attached to a surgery that has saved many major league pitchers' careers.
But Tommy John knows that's an honor he came by thanks in large part to good luck.
"Fortunately for me, I was at the right place at the right time," he told All Things Considered host Melissa Block on Friday. "I happened to have one of the greatest surgeons of all time being the surgeon for the Los Angeles Dodgers."
That would be Dr. Frank Jobe, who died Thursday at the age of 88.
It was Sept. 25, 1974, when Jobe took a tendon from John's forearm and used it to repair John's left elbow. The Dodgers pitcher, a left-hander, had ruptured his medial collateral ligament — an injury that at the time meant the end for any pitcher's major league career.
Jobe told him, John says, that the chances of his ever pitching again were "less than 5 percent." But a year later, John was throwing again in an instructional league game. He would go on to pitch for 14 more seasons in the big leagues, compiling a career record of 288 wins to 231 losses. After the Dodgers, he pitched for the then-California Angels and the New York Yankees.
While he was lucky to have Jobe as his surgeon, John also believes the surgeon was lucky to have a stubborn athlete as a patient. John was more than willing to have the surgery and to do the rehabilitation work that followed.
As for his friend, anyone who met Jobe, says John, "would think he was just some mild-mannered person from Greensboro, N.C."
Jobe would say, his most famous patient remembers, " 'I'm not a great surgeon, but I have the best patients in the world.' "
Much more from John's conversation about Jobe is due on Friday's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.
For much more about "Tommy John surgery," a good place to start is this package of stories from the Los Angeles Times' Bleacher Report. In includes a video about "how the surgery is done."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
A moment now to remember a man who changed baseball history with a scalpel and drill. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe died yesterday at age 88. Back in 1974, as the orthopedist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jobe revolutionized sports medicine when he grafted a tendon to repair a pitcher's elbow. That surgery came to bear the name of the pitcher whose elbow that was, Tommy John. He went on to win another 164 games over 14 seasons, and Tommy John joins me now. Welcome to the program.
TOMMY JOHN: Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me on.
BLOCK: Well, let's go back to 1974 when you injured your elbow, tore that ligament in your pitching arm. At the time, that was a career-ending injury. What did Frank Jobe tell you then?
JOHN: Well, we sat down and went over options, and his options were this. You do not need the surgery. You'll be perfectly fine doing whatever you need to be a father, a husband, a gardener, you know, whatever you need to do. But you'll never be able to pitch Major League Baseball again. And I said, OK, if I have the surgery? He said, well, it's never been done. I don't know, but I would say your chances are slim to none - less than 5 percent, maybe 1, 2 percent, three. He said, but it's not very good. And, you know, I was valedictorian in my high school class and I know two or 3 percent out of - is a whole lot better than zero percent out of 100. And I said...
BLOCK: So you said you'd take those odds, huh?
JOHN: Well, I said, here's what you do. If you do your job, I will more than do my job. And I said, if it takes one year, fine. If it takes two, if it takes three, whatever it takes to get back on the mound. And fortunately, I was in the right at the right place. And fortunately for Dr. Jobe, he was in the right place at the right time, because he got the right patient and I got the right surgeon.
BLOCK: You said that the Dr. Jobe was your friend first and your doctor second. What kind of man was he?
JOHN: If you would meet him and you didn't know who he was, you would think he was just some mild-mannered person. He's from Greensborough, North Carolina. And I think his dad started churches, that they went from town to town to town starting churches. Well, when they got the church going, they would go to the next town. And he's just very mild mannered. He's not braggadocios. It's not I, I, I, me, me, me. It's all the other stuff. And if you say, you know, you're a - you're really a great surgeon - and he told me one time, he said, you know, really, I'm not a great surgeon. He said, I'm kind of an average surgeon but I just have the best patients in the world, which makes me look like I'm a good surgeon.
BLOCK: You know, we were talking a little earlier when you mentioned the 2 to 3 percent.
BLOCK: I think before he operated on you, Dr. Jobe had only done this operation a few other times and it was on polio patients. Was he surprised in the end by how successful the surgery was?
JOHN: Well, yeah, because when I first went out that first game back, one year, one day after surgery, he said, I was fully expecting you to throw one pitch and put something on it and grab your elbow. But, you know, my elbow didn't feel great, but it didn't hurt. But, you know, it just felt funky. And the more I threw, the better it felt.
BLOCK: Do you have a favorite memory from the - all the years that you knew Dr. Frank Jobe, do you have memory that you're turning to today?
JOHN: Well, I - when I went over there in 1972 with the Dodgers, we had spring training in Vero Beach, and I can remember him in spring training. The wives used to sit around the pool and a couple of them played tennis and then they got more and more played tennis. And you would see Dr. Jobe - and I can see him to this day come over with these little, skinny, spindly legs in his tennis whites with his racket. And they would bring him out on the court, and he would play doubles with the wives of the Dodgers. And I just said, thank, God, he was a better surgeon than he was a tennis player.
BLOCK: Well, Tommy John, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
JOHN: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's Tommy John, who pitched for 26 years in the majors, thanks to the elbow surgery that now bears his name. The surgeon who performed that pioneering operation back in 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe, died yesterday at age 88. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.