LOS ANGELES — Dr. Frank Jobe, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon who was the first to perform an elbow procedure that became known as Tommy John surgery and saved the careers of countless major league pitchers, died Thursday. He was 88.
Jobe died in Santa Monica after being hospitalized recently with an undisclosed illness, according to a Los Angeles Dodgers spokesman.
Jobe performed groundbreaking elbow surgery on John, a Dodgers pitcher who had a ruptured medial collateral ligament in his left elbow. The injury previously had no solution until Jobe removed a tendon from John’s forearm and repaired his elbow. John went on to pitch 14 years after the Sept. 25, 1974, operation, compiling 164 more victories without ever missing a start because of an elbow problem.
“Today I lost a GREAT friend,” John tweeted.
The surgery and relationship between John and Jobe was the subject of an ESPN documentary last year.
“When he did come back, I thought maybe we could do it on somebody else,” Jobe told The Associated Press in 2010. “I waited two years to try it on somebody else, but we had no idea we could do it again.”
Jobe initially estimated John’s chances of returning to the majors at less than 5 percent. He later said 92 to 95 percent of patients return as good, if not better, than before the surgery.
The surgery has since become common practice for pitchers and players at every level of baseball, including New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, Washington star Stephen Strasburg, Milwaukee’s Tim Hudson and Minnesota’s Francisco Liriano.
Some pitchers have signed multiyear contracts just months after they have the surgery in expectation of a high-level return.
Typically, full rehabilitation takes about a year for pitchers and about six months for position players. The procedure initially required four hours. Now it takes about an hour.
“I had no idea it would do this,” Jobe told the AP. “It startles me even today that it has done that. The doctors are recognizing the condition early enough to fix it, and they are learning how to do the surgery so well. They rehab it so not just the arm, but the whole body gets better.”
Jobe said the advancements would continue.
“You never want to say in medicine this is the end. You’re always coming up with something a little bit different,” he said. “Even with Tommy John, there’s people doing things slightly different. In their minds, they’re getting better.”
Jobe had served the Dodgers organization for 50 years, most recently as special adviser to the chairman. The courtly Southerner attended the team’s games as recently as last season, with someone on either arm escorting him.
Sixteen years after saving John’s career, Jobe reconstructed the right shoulder of former Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, another procedure that had never been successfully performed on a major league pitcher.
“He change my life!! Gave me back my career!!” tweeted Hershiser, a former Dodgers great. “I will miss him and I am eternally grateful!!!”
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig saluted Jobe for revolutionizing sports medicine.
“His wisdom elevated not only the Dodgers, the franchise he served proudly for a half-century, but all of our clubs,” Selig said in a statement. “Dr. Jobe’s expertise, as well as his enthusiasm to mentor his peers, made the national pastime stronger.”
Since 1974, Jobe had performed hundreds of Tommy John surgeries on pitchers. Jobe co-founded the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic along with the late Dr. Robert Kerlan in 1965. They supervised the medical treatment for the Dodgers and Angels, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, as well as other pro and amateur athletes around the country.
“His dedication and professionalism in not only helping the Dodgers, but athletes around the world is unparalleled,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten said. “He was a medical giant and pioneer, and many athletes in the past and the future can always thank Frank for finding a way to continue their careers.”
Jobe also was the orthopedic consultant for the PGA Tour for more than 25 years.
Last July, the Baseball Hall of Fame honored Jobe during its induction weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., with John in attendance.
Born in Greensboro, N.C., in 1925, Jobe joined Army at 18 and served as a medical staff sergeant in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division during World War II.
After the war, Jobe completed his undergraduate degree at La Sierra University and went on to attend medical school at Loma Linda University. After serving a residency at Los Angeles County Hospital, Jobe teamed with Kerlan to specialize in the new field of sports medicine.
Jobe is survived by wife Beverly, sons Christopher, Meredith, Cameron and Blair, and eight grandchildren.
The family said plans for a memorial were pending.