Tommy John was seldom feared by hitters, as he didn’t have an overpowering fastball that many pitchers had, but he just the same perplexed hitters with his finesse style. Born on May 22, 1943, in Terre Haute, Indiana he would go on to have amazing longevity as a major league pitcher, winning nearly 300 games in 26 years for six teams. Little is known about Thomas Edward John’s childhood, but he attended Gerstmeyer High School in Indiana where he was an outstanding basketball player and pitcher on the school’s baseball team. Noticed by scouts, he would be signed by the Cleveland Indians during the 1961 draft.
The 18-year-old was sent to the team’s farm club in Dubuque, Iowa where he would pitch exceedingly well, so well that he was promoted to for the next season to Charleston of the Class A Eastern League, where the level of competition moved up a notch. John now faced much more adept hitting, and in this competitive atmosphere, he suddenly learned something about himself: He simply did not know how to pitch. The problem was that he threw the ball so well, that it landed in the center of the strike zone every time, and it got creamed. To compensate he would throw the ball off the plate and get behind in the count, and the result was walking too many batters.
The man who came to his rescue in 1962 was, according to John, Steve Jankowski, a player-coach in the Indians’ system. “He simply reminded me that I was not the only man on the team, that there were eight others in the field to help me put batters out,” Tommy said. Jankowski told John that, since he could trust his defense to make plays, he didn’t have to throw his hardest on every pitch. “Use about eighty percent of your power and save some for the later innings.” The formula worked for John, his control returned and he got more batters out; he was quickly learning how to pitch.
With his newfound form In July 1962, the Indians suddenly promoted Tommy John to their Triple-A Jacksonville team. John, who, at just 19 years old, had a mediocre 6-8 record at Class A, felt more than a little out of place. Many of the players he played with and against were seasoned players, five, six, even ten years older. Fortunately for him, a team coach, Al Jones, took John under his wing. Among other things, Jones directed him to pitch whatever his catcher told him to pitch. As a result, John pitched fairly well, recording two wins against two losses over the last part of the season and two wins in the International League playoffs.
Late in 1963 John would make his major league debut pitching in six games that year and compiling a 0-2 record. 1964 wouldn’t be any better when he went 2-9. During the year John would become frustrated by his fastball that wasn’t all that fast. He with the help of the pitching coach he tried to learn other pitches including a slider, in the process was demoted to Triple-A Portland (Pacific Coast League). At Portland, he would return to his fastball and would regain his control, but during the offseason, the Indians would trade he and two other players to the Chicago White Sox.
During that spring training in 1965, while concentrating on his control, he also fiddled with his delivery, in what would become his sinkerball. John would suddenly become a new pitcher, inducing strikeouts and ground balls. In 1965 he would have his first winning season going 14-7 with an ERA of 3.09. John would go on to pitch for the White Sox for seven years. In 1968 he would have an ERA of 1.98, leading the league. During his time with the Sox, he would become primarily a sinkerball pitcher who threw a mediocre fastball and an effective curveball. At the end of his contract, he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he would play 3 years going 40-15 but would injure his pitching arm at the end of the 1974 season.
John is just as famous for the surgery he had, as he was for being a baseball pitcher. During a game, John released what he hoped would be a rally-killing pitch. That was when everything went wrong. His arm just went dead, he felt a pop and he could no longer pitch. It took some time for the seriousness of John’s injury to become clear. Like many pitchers, John had had trouble with his arm and shoulder before, and he had recovered from it. Besides the bone chip surgery in 1972, he had separated his shoulder in 1968 in the fight with McAuliffe. John always recovered quickly from injuries, so he thought he would get over this quickly as well. Little did he know what was in store for him. He had to have a very special surgery to repair a torn ligament. It’s a surgical procedure in which a healthy tendon extracted from an arm (or sometimes a leg) is used to replace an arm’s torn ligament. The healthy tendon is threaded through holes drilled into the bone above and below the elbow. Few, including John, knew if he would ever return to pitching.
The surgery was successful and would later be named Tommy John surgery, and become a commonly used surgery to prevent ending pitcher’s career. John would return to successfully pitch for the Dodgers for another three years, being an All-Star and being nominated for the MVP and two Cy Young awards. At the end of 1978, John would for the first time to become a free agent. John landed with the Yankees and established himself as the most consistent winner for the team with back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1979-80, and second- and fourth-place finishes in Cy Young Award balloting. His record from 1976 to 1981 was 99 wins and 53 losses, a 3.06 ERA, 14 shutouts, 64 complete games, and an average of more than 235 innings per year (after adjusting for the 1981 strike-shortened season).
John hung on with the Yankees for a few more years after this, pitching well during a season (1981) shortened by a players’ strike, and by time off to care for his son Travis. In October 1981 the 38-year-old John pitched in the third World Series meeting between the Dodgers and Yankees in five years, though this time he was on the side, opposite his old teammates. Again he pitched well, winning one of the three games he started (against no losses) and recording a 0.69 ERA. But it was not enough, and for the third time, John was on the losing side in the World Series. Despite pitching for eight more seasons after 1981, John never again appeared in the World Series. In 1982 the Yankees traded him to the California Angels.
John would pitch three years for the Angels and two years for Oakland, before coming back to the Yankees in 1986 where he proved himself yet again. Over the next two seasons, John won 18 games. In 1988 he won nine games for the Yankees, then made the team as a walk-on one last time in 1989, pitching well enough in spring training to be named Opening Day starter, before getting released in May. John finally announced his retirement in September. “I think I could still pitch,” John, then 46, told a reporter in his home state of Indiana, “but it’s a young man’s game.” John with the Yankees was 91-60 with a 3.59 ERA. In his career, he won 288 games with a record of 188 no-decisions. John has since had knee and hip surgery and is 76, playing golf near his La Quinta, California home.
John was divorced from his wife Sally in 2013. He lost a 28-year-old son from a prescription drug overdose. After baseball, he spent many years as a television analyst for the Yankees, Braves, Twins, and for ESPN.com.