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Frank Jobe, 88; pioneered ‘Tommy John’ elbow surgery

Dr. Jobe’s Tommy John surgery was a landmark in sports medicine.

Associated Press/file 1997

Dr. Jobe’s Tommy John surgery was a landmark in sports medicine.

NEW YORK — On a July night in 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe, the orthopedist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was in the stands at Dodger Stadium watching left-hander Tommy John face the Montreal Expos.

In the third inning, John threw a pair of wild pitches and heard the sound of a “collision” from his arm. He had torn an elbow ligament, which back then almost certainly meant the end of a pitcher’s career.

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But Dr. Jobe performed a pioneering operation, transplanting an unneeded tendon from John’s right wrist into his left elbow, where it functioned as a new ligament. John won another 164 games over 14 seasons, retiring at age 46.

Dr. Jobe, who died Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 88, was renowned as the father of Tommy John surgery, a landmark in sports medicine that has been duplicated thousands of times and has saved the careers of numerous athletes, most of them pitchers.

Dr. Jobe also performed groundbreaking shoulder surgery on Dodgers’ star pitcher Orel Hershiser in 1990, developing a procedure that reduces trauma to tissue during the operation. Hershiser pitched for another decade, and Dr. Jobe’s shoulder procedure has been employed many times since.

When Hershiser returned to the mound at Dodger Stadium on May 29, 1991, he bowed his head in silent prayer, then placed his cap on his head and threw a salute to Dr. Jobe.

“There should be a medical wing in the Hall of Fame, starting with him,” John told The Orange County Register.

The long list of pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery includes A.J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, John Smoltz, Stephen Strasburg, Billy Wagner, David Wells, Brian Wilson, and Matt Harvey.

But when Dr. Jobe suggested the tendon transplant to John, he said the chances of success were slim. He had performed the procedure on polio patients to improve joint use, but never on an athlete.

“He looked around my office very seriously,” Dr. Jobe told Fox Sports in 2012. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And those are three words that changed baseball.”

Frank W. Jobe was born in Greensboro, N.C., in 1925, the son of a postman. He joined the Army out of high school during World War II and served as a medical supply sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge.

He was inspired by watching surgeons work under combat conditions.

“These guys would be operating in tents with bullets and shrapnel flying around,” Dr. Jobe told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. “There was tremendous noise from the shells going off. There was blood everywhere. These guys became my real heroes.”

After the war, he graduated from La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., then obtained a medical degree from Loma Linda University in California.

Dr. Jobe was a general practitioner for three years, then completed a residency in orthopedic surgery and in 1965 joined with Dr. Robert Kerlan as founders of the Southwestern Orthopaedic Medical Group in Los Angeles. It was renamed the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in 1985.

The clinic served the general public, but it specialized in working with athletes in the emerging field of sports medicine, often treating baseball, basketball, and hockey players for teams in California.

Dr. Jobe began doing consultant work with the Dodgers in 1964, then became their orthopedic doctor in 1968. He spent 40 years in that post, then was named a special adviser to the team. He was also medical director for the PGA and Senior PGA Tours.

In performing his surgery on John, who had won 124 games in the majors to that point, Dr. Jobe took a tendon from the wrist, then drilled holes in John’s damaged elbow and wove the tendon through them. During John’s long rehabilitation process, the tendon began to function as the damaged ulnar collateral ligament had.

John missed the last half of the 1974 season and all of 1975. On April 26, 1976, he won his first major league game since the injury, a victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He later become a mainstay of the New York Yankees’ pitching staff, and his elbow never troubled him again.

Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax retired at 30 after the 1966 season because of an elbow injury similar to John’s.

“I’ve seen him many times in spring training and, sure, he’s brought it up,” Dr. Jobe told the Daily News of Los Angeles in 2012. “He’d say, ‘Why didn’t you do that on me?’ We simply didn’t know what to do for them back then.”

In addition to his practice, Dr. Jobe was a clinical professor in the department of orthopedics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. He was the founder and medical director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, studying body motion and designing exercises to prevent injury.

He leaves his wife, Beverly; his sons Christopher, Meredith, Cameron, and Blair; and eight grandchildren.

Dr. Jobe said he never specifically coined the term Tommy John surgery, noting that it had evolved over time.

“It’s the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction while using the palmaris longus tendon,” he wryly remarked to The Orange County Register. “That’s why they call it Tommy John surgery.”

In July 2012, John presented Dr. Jobe with an MRI of his pitching elbow that he had just taken as a souvenir for him.

Reflecting on his contributions to sports medicine, Dr. Jobe looked beyond the medical terminology. He told Major League Baseball’s website: “Sometimes it just makes you want to cry watching those guys go on to great things. It really does.”

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