There is nothing so daring as innovation. It threatens, challenges, changes. Innovation can transform organizations, products, people.
It’s rightly viewed as a necessary component of entrepreneurship. Yet, it’s wrongly presented as having to be major. We look for the “next big thing” when we have countless examples that small changes, small discoveries, small augmentations actually can have more lasting impact.
Today’s a good day to remember that because one of the greatest advances in sports medicine happened on this day 41 years ago, turning a participant into a household name — just not the participant you’d expect.
A young Los Angeles Dodgers left-handed pitcher named Tommy John was 13-3 in 1974 when he suffered a usual career-ender for pitchers: an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, in his left arm. It was, until that time, an occupational hazard for pitchers, with few options for repair.
But the Dodgers team doctor, a surgeon named Frank Jobe, wanted to try a procedure never performed on a pitcher. He would take a tendon from John’s right forearm and use it to replace the left UCL. Jobe would recall later that he didn’t think the surgery had much of a chance, about 1-in-100. But it was worth a shot. Doing nothing at all would end John’s career, so doing something, anything, despite the long odds, couldn’t make the situation any worse.
The rest, as they say, is history. John went on to win 164 more games by the time he returned to the mound in 1976, to put his career wins at 288. What’s more, his career lasted into 1989. For the last two years, he was the oldest player in Major League Baseball.
Not only were John’s longevity and wins signs of the inarguable success of what came to be known as “Tommy John surgery,” but the surgery quickly became almost routine practice for pitchers. It also has a very high success rate, estimated at 83 percent. In fact, the surgery is so easy to perform that, if anything, it is overdone nowadays.
In the end, many doctors agree that Jobe’s innovation wasn’t that earth shattering. It is a two-hour surgery and relies on the concept of taking one part of the body and putting it to use somewhere else, a surgical technique as old as time. But Jobe was the first to do it, and so it is his — even though it bears Tommy John’s name. In retrospect, it was a small innovation that one could argue changed the face of sports.
Interestingly, Jobe’s career could have taken him down another path. In a Reddit AMA in 2013, a year before his death, Jobe said didn’t set out to become a doctor. After enlisting in the Army in 1943, he was sent to Europe, picking the medical company of the 101st Airborne over infantry duty. “In the rest area, the doctors who I was working with would say to me, ‘What are you gonna do when you get out of this war?'” he recalled. “At that point I said, ‘I don’t know, I just finished high school.’ They told me that I could do it. So when I got out, I took pre-med to see if I liked it, and I did. So I just kept on going.”
As for the surgery carrying the patient’s name rather than the innovator’s, Jobe said he didn’t mind. “Not at all,” he said. “I like it.”