39 years ago, pitcher Tommy John tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow. The UCL connects a person's humerus (upper arm bone) to his ulna (one of two lower arm bones), and is crucial to throwing a baseball. To that point, a pitcher who tore his UCL was essentially done. Pitchers like Sandy Koufax had their careers shortened by what was then known as a "dead arm," and it appeared that John was headed that way until he saw Dr. Frank Jobe.
With no other options except retiring, John agreed to undergo what was then an experimental surgery: Jobe took a tendon taken from elsewhere on John's body and attached it to the humerus-ulna joint by drilling holes in both bones and inserting the repurposed tendon in a figure-eight pattern between the bones. Jobe gave John a 1 in a 100 chance of pitching again, but after rehabbing for 18 months, John not only returned to Major League Baseball, but pitched for 13 more seasons. The success of the surgery revolutionized baseball. Pitchers who would never have pitched in the majors now had long and successful careers, and although Tommy John surgery is still considered serious (there's usually a 12-14 month recovery time), in almost all cases pitchers who undergo the surgery make a full recovery.
A couple years after Jobe performed his first UCL replacement surgery, Dr. Lewis Yocum joined his practice, and quickly became one of the go-to surgeons for players who needed Tommy John surgery. Yocum of course did many other types of orthopedic procedures, as he was the team doctor to the Los Angeles Angels, but in the baseball world, he is known for his Tommy John surgeries. There are probably at least one player on each major league team that had Yocum do their Tommy John surgeries.
"He could probably do the Tommy John surgery better than I could," Dr. Jobe told Major League Baseball’s Web site upon Dr. Yocum’s death. Dr. Jobe recalled how Dr. Yocum developed a more effective way of stringing sutures for the surgery, cutting the patient’s time under anesthesia by 15 minutes or so.
Sad to hear of the passing of Dr. Yocum. Performed my elbow surgery in 2006. I am very grateful for all he did for my career…RIP— Vinnie Pestano (@VinnieP52) May 28, 2013
RIP Dr. Yocum. Did surgery on my elbow 9 months ago to allow me to keep doing what I love to do. Very thankful for what he did for me.— Josh Tomlin (@jtomlin43) May 28, 2013
Sad to hear of the passing of Dr. Yocum!! Performed tommy John on me in '09 to help me continue my career as well as many other careers! RIP— Mike Aviles(@Themikeaviles) May 28, 2013
Had these players played 40 years ago, a torn UCL would have meant the early end of their baseball career or the end of their career before it even began. But thanks to Tommy John surgery, a one-year layoff is usually all it takes to come back to play at the highest level. This summer Dr. Jobe will be honored at Hall of Fame weekend for his contributions to the sport, and undoubtedly Dr. Yocum's contributions will be mentioned as well.