Skip to content

Tommy John Takes On Tommy John Surgery

The former baseball player is not a fan of his namesake surgery. He talks with Bob Edwards in this 'Take on Today' episode

Tommy John

Getty Images

Subscribe:  Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn

Bob Edwards:

Hello, I’m Bob Edwards with An AARP Take On Today.

If you’re a baseball fan of a certain age, the name “Tommy John” might bring to mind a four-time All-Star pitcher who won 288 Major League games.

For others, the moniker might elicit a cringe, because it’s the name of a painful, yet often career-saving surgery – commonly performed on a pitcher’s elbow. 

Its proper name is ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery.

In the September AARP Bulletin, Tommy John explains how his namesake surgery is now common practice among youth athletes. 

And he’s not a fan. 

He also writes about the nation’s 15 billion dollar youth sport’s industry and how it’s affecting our kids’ and grandkid’s health. 

With me now are the baseball great Tommy John and his son Dr. Tommy John.

Bob Edwards:

Tommy John. Let me start by asking how the surgery got your name?

Tommy John:

Well, I bought it. You know, I had a lot of money that year and I just went out and bought the name, you know.

No. Dr. Jobe, after he did the surgery and it proved that it was successful, you know, was going talking to other doctors about the surgery. And he said, “I just got tired of calling it the ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery with the palmaris longus tendon.” And he said, “I hate it.” It just tied him up. And then he said, “You know, the surgery I did on Tommy John.” And then, a little later he said, “You know, Tommy John surgery.”

And everybody knew it as Tommy John surgery from that time on. And it probably should be Frank Jobe surgery, but Dr. Jobe said, “Nobody knows who I am.”

Bob Edwards:

This is real immortality. I mean, as great as your career was, and very long by the way, and successful, someone is mentioning your name every day.

Tommy John:

Yes. Yeah and it's, you know, I get people…. I'll be playing in golf outings and all that. And they say I just heard your name last night on the Red Sox game, or the Nationals were playing, the Phillies. And you know, this guy is going into have the surgery and Stephen Strasburg had the surgery, I think, twice. And, you know, it's just… It's what it is.

It's these guys, you know, and… The sad thing is, not so much the major league ball players or minor league ball players. That's their job and injuries are part of the business. But it's these young kids high school, pre-high school, having to have the surgery.

Jim Andrews, we were talking a couple of months ago, and he had parents come in. The kid was 12 or 13-years-old that needed Tommy John surgery.

And that is the part of the surgery that makes you want to vomit, really. It shouldn't be. At that age, it should not be.

Bob Edwards:

People thought your career was over and yet it extended… You had a second half after the surgery.

Tommy John:

Well, you know, it's funny. I pitched 13 years post-op and I never missed a start in 13 years.

So, whatever Dr. Jobe did. However he did it, it was very good. However I rehabbed, and I know how I did it, was exceptional.

And, you know, it's funny that in all the years, I had one guy call me. A guy, a pitcher, with the Montreal Expos. His name was David Palmer, asked me what he should expect with the surgery? It's just… I find that amusing actually.

Bob Edwards:

Some would argue everyone should have this benefit.

Tommy John:

There were a couple of doctors saying that parents came in and they said look my son's a pitcher. He's this, he's probably going to have to have Tommy John surgery. Why don't you do it now and prevent him from having it down the road?

And my point is, I said, if a doctor does that and operates on a perfectly healthy normal man that's a pitcher, he should lose his license and go to jail. Because that is criminal.

It's criminal because you put the somebody under, and I asked Dr. Jobe what he calls a successful surgery. And he said, “If the patient comes out of out of anesthetic and is healthy and is breathing on his own, it's a successful surgery.” Is the operation going to be a success? He said, “that remains to be seen.”

But the surgery doesn't make you a better pitcher. It doesn't make you throw harder. And a lot of parents think, “Oh, the surgery makes my kid throw harder, or makes him throw harder.” It doesn't.

Bob Edwards:

Let's turn to your son, Dr. John. You were so moved by your dad's experience and all that has happened, that you wrote a book. What was the breaking point?

Dr. Tommy John:

You know, being in practice for 17 years, working with high-performing athletes on the professional level. Up to 80-year-olds with MS, and degenerative conditions and osteoporosis. On down to nine-year-olds with developmental disorders. 

What I started to see over the course of time was a trend and it was these overuse degenerative conditions that is “common” to see in a forty, fifty, sixty-year-old-plus.  They [degenerative conditions] were occurring in ten, eleven, twelve-year-olds. And they were occurring in all sports. No sport was immune to it.

And that's when I step back and I'm like, something needs to be done here. Because it was getting worse and worse. And it was like every new season that came on, there was this wave of new patients and they were younger, and younger.

Bob Edwards:

It almost sounds like you have a cultural concern, not just a medical one.

Tommy John:

Yeah that's interesting you say that. Not that what we've always known is that youth sports can foster, you know, healthy lifestyles, and understanding of teamwork, commitment, etc. That's all still there.

But, now that you have sports to become a 15 billion dollar a year industry, some of those valuable lessons are being cast aside. And it's now something that used to be fun, is now being pushed on some kids in a way that's increasingly causing injuries and anxieties even.

And there's some statistics I'd love to share with you: concussions are up 500 percent, ACL surgeries in six to 18-year-olds are up 60% over the last 20 years. 57 percent of Tommy John surgeries are in 15 and 19-year-olds. 60 to 70 percent of children drop out of sports by the age of 13 because of parental or peer and coaching pressure.

And this last and final one is the scariest of all, in my opinion: it's the soft tissue repair market size, meaning, the revenue generated by surgery on soft tissue is expected to reach 17 billion [dollars] by the year 2022. With the main driver being, according to research, the increasing participation in youth in sports.

Bob Edwards:

The surgery claims your name too, of course. Was that part of why you needed to write?

Dr. Tommy John:

You know, the first thing to note, is that it isn't just about baseball and damaged elbows. It goes so far beyond that. Even though it's personal for my dad and I having our names attached to a surgery that's being unnecessarily performed on kids.

Once your eyes are open to the fact that youth sports is creating an injury epidemic across the board within all sports. And it's an epidemic that's only getting worse. You can't turn your back on it. For instance, the last wave of patients in my office comprised of stress fractures to spines, meniscus damage to knees, depression and anxiety caused by the sport. And these were all kids.

So, the surgery that’s epidemic proportions in baseball, drives us to want to help every player we can. But, no sport is safe. And so, finally, there's the solution in the form of a book that we can provide. It's simple. It's ageless.

Bob Edwards:

What advice would you give to parents and grandparents?

Dr. John:

That's a great question and, that's a hard one to answer, because there's so much that these parents and grandparents need to know that they're simply not being told. And when I wrote “Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance,” I tried to infuse every piece of advice that I share with my clients on the day-to-day basis. And that my dad and I share when he and I speak in front of others. From how to handle coaches, how to know when a young athlete is overtraining, the right foods to eat, what you should really be doing in the offseason, and the truth about a child's odds of really getting that scholarship or turning pro.

It's all in the book.

But, when I only have their ear for a moment, I'd say this and it's to do your research. Every morning, I wake up and I do a quick google search – so, I urge everybody to do this –  on youth sports and injuries. And what it'll do, is it will open your mind to exactly what's happening behind the scenes and how necessary this solution is.

Bob Edwards:

Well, you're on a crusade here.

Dr. Tommy John:

That's what it feels like. And that's why I keep my legs strong because I'm going up against the Goliath, sitting on top of a Goliath on a Goliath.

Trying to round up as many allies as I can and, honestly, I'm really trying to empower parents and players again. Because when I see them on a couch in my office in tears because their 10-year-old is terrified of playing, or their 10-year-old has a scar on their knee or their elbow, or they're medicated for anxiety and depression caused by sports. That's my driving force and that is what’s behind this.

So, an absolute crusade is what we're on and we won't stop until something's changed.

Bob Edwards:

Tommy, when did you start? How young were you?

Tommy John:

My mom and dad signed me up for city rec baseball in Terre Haute, Indiana when I was 8-years-old. I looked in the paper and I saw I was on the XYZ team. I went down for our first game. Who was coaching, who was making out the lineup? A 13, 14-year-old kid. And he put us down and we played and the game was over. And we went to the Dairy Queen and got a five-cent cone.

But, kids coached me my first two years.

Bob Edwards:

But, you weren't hurting until you were a pro, right?

Tommy John:

Well, I wasn't hurting until I turned pro and I started pitching on four days with the three days rest. I'd never done that before and it got to me. And you know, I got my first cortisone injection in St. Louis the day John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. And between there and July 17, 1974, I probably had 40 or 50 cortisone injections.

And when I told Dr. Jobe that, and Jobe injected me because that's what you did back then. “Oh you got a tender elbow? We'll inject it.” He went. “Oh my god.” He said, “it's a wonder your arm lasted this long.” And, so that's the essence of… you know.

But, back then, you now… Now if you go into baseball, and you go to the trainer, and you say, “Oh, god I got post-nasal drip, it's just killing me.” They'll put you on the DL [disabled list], they'll do the MRIs, and they'll do all this stuff.

Back then, if you went and said my elbow is killing me… “Oh, kid all right. You’re released.” Boom, and you're back home. So, you kept… You kept quiet. You didn't say anything because your job was to pitch, your job was to play, and they couldn't have guys on the disabled list in their organization. That's the way baseball was back in the early, early 60s.

Bob Edwards:

Yeah, just rub some dirt on it.

Tommy John:

Rub some dirt on it. Yup. Exactly.

Bob Edwards:

You had a long career with, what it's like seven teams. Do you cheer for any of them?

Tommy John:

Truthfully, I don't even watch baseball anymore.

Bob Edwards:


Tommy John:

Yeah, because the baseball that's played now, is not the baseball that I played.

You know we don't have guys banging on their hearts, and pointing to the sky, and doing backflips and all of that. If you would have done that when I played, Bob Gibson would have put a ball in your ear. Juan Marichal would have put a ball in your ear.

Now, if you even look cross-eyed at the hitters, the umpires will go out and they'll… Boom and you're thrown out of the game. It's just… the whole games changed.

Bob Edwards:

Gentlemen, thank you both for bringing awareness to a very important issue.

Dr. Tommy John:

Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Bob Edwards:

Baseball great Tommy John and his son, Dr. Tommy John, the author of “Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide.”


Bob Edwards:

Here’s what else you need to know today.

If it seems like a night of casual imbibing leaves you feeling less than perky the next morning, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. If you can bear it.

Yes, there are definitely some theories as to why your 50-plus self can no longer drink like your under-30 self.

For one, liver function declines with age, as does sleep quality, which makes it harder for the body to recover from excessive drinking.

Older adults are also more prone to dehydration, which is enhanced by alcohol.

But surprisingly, a survey of more than 51,000 adults found that the odds of experiencing nine hangover symptoms after having more than five drinks decreased with age.

Why? Some researchers chalk it up to experience and learned behaviors like pacing and hydrating to avoid the dreaded hangover.

But to avoid hangovers altogether? Avoid the cause and lean toward moderation.


Bob Edwards:

Science and medical breakthroughs have us living longer. That’s a fact.

But it seems that building strong social connections and reducing isolation makes the years we gain even more plentiful, purposeful and fulfilling.

Turns out, according to research, that loneliness is the new smoking — equating to inhaling 15 cigarettes a day — and potentially shaving eight years off your life expectancy.

Social isolation of older adults has become such a health risk that it is associated with an estimated 6.7 billion dollars in additional Medicare spending annually.

Which has made some healthcare providers take notice. California-based CareMore has become the first U.S. health care provider group to hire a “chief togetherness officer” to directly address loneliness and its impact on health.

And as important as having friends is, having a purpose and an optimistic attitude toward aging is just as impactful toward how long — and how well — you might live.

Those with an upbeat view of aging are more likely to fully recover from a severe disability, show less evidence of Alzheimer’s on an MRI and have up to an 80 percent lower risk of a cardiovascular event.

So, a positive outlook and someone to share it with just may be what flows from the fountain of youth.


For more, visit AARP dot org slash podcast.

Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcast apps.

Thanks for listening.  I’m Bob Edwards.

This episode was originally published on September 6, 2018.

Tommy John explains how his namesake surgery is now common practice among youth athletes. And he’s not a fan. Baseball legend Tommy John and his son, Tommy John III, a chiropractor, call attention to how the youth sports industry is affecting our kids’ and grandkids' future.

How to Listen and Subscribe to 'Take on Today' Podcast

iPhone or iPad

  1. Open the Apple Podcasts app, search for the show title and select it from the list of results.
  2. Once on the show page, click the "Subscribe" button to have new episodes sent to your phone or tablet for free.
  3. Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen.

Android Phone or Tablet

  1. Open the Google Play Music app, search for the show title and select it from the list of results.
  2. Once on the show page, click the "Subscribe" button to have new episodes sent to your phone or tablet for free.
  3. Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen.
  1. To play podcasts on your Amazon Echo smart speaker, ask the following: "Alexa, ask TuneIn to play Take on Today podcast" OR "Alexa, play Take on Today podcast on TuneIn"
  2. To play podcasts on your Google Home smart speaker, ask the following: "Hey Google, play Take on Today podcast"