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Wax Bombers: Tommy John

Each week I look back through my baseball card collection and remember past Bombers and memorable moments.

  • Player: Tommy John
  • Set: 1981 Topps
  • Card #: 550
  • Type: Base

The most famous elbow in the history of baseball settled into his seat at Gate B-5 of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. Then, his phone rang.

At that time I had a side hobby of tracking down past Yankees to interview them for a Yankees blog I started. As you might expect, the household names were difficult to find, but the White Pages proved surprisingly useful for finding guys like Bobby Richardson, Steve Balboni, and Cliff Johnson. Scott Brosius was a coach at Linfield College at the time so I found him through his athletic department, and I got Luis Sojo through the Tampa Yankees media department while he was managing the blossoming Bombers in single-A.

Then there was Tommy John, whose cell phone number sat in plain sight on the contact page of his website. So I gave the lefty a call and found him in fine spirits while reposing before his flight.

Over the next 45 minutes our conversation meandered past numerous signposts in his remarkable life. Fans of the classic movie Hoosiers will find it interesting that Tommy was the ball boy during Milan’s upset of Muncie Central, the 1954 Indiana State Championship game immortalized in the film. The Terra Haute, IN native was himself an exceptional high school basketball player, once ringing up Bedford High for 47 points on 21 of 28 shooting. He averaged 16 rebounds a game in his senior year, despite his undersized 6′ 3″ frame, earning him 50 basketball scholarships, including an invitation to the University of Illinois. Just one baseball scholarship came his way, but his curveball was major league-ready and Cleveland signed him soon after graduation.

Of course we discussed the surgery that now bears his name. He credited Dr. Frank Jobe with saving his career by mending his ulnar collateral ligament, allowing him to pitch 13 more years without missing a start during a time when a torn UCL was a pitcher’s death sentence. It was that surgery that gave him more wins in the second half of his career than in the first, and paved the way for some very productive years in New York.

Like many Yankees whose excellent play did not coincide with a championship, Tommy’s tours in the Bronx are not as heralded as they perhaps should be. In ’79 and ’80 he enjoyed his greatest stretch of success in a 26-year career, going 43-18 with a 3.19 ERA and a pair of 20-win seasons. In his two stints in pinstripes (1979-82 & 1986-89) he compiled six winning seasons, 91 wins, and a 3.59 ERA. His Yankee win total places him ahead of Clemens (83), Ralph Terry (78), Wells (68), and El Duque (61) and his Yankee ERA is just a shade behind Catfish (3.58) and ahead of Jimmy Key (3.68), but each of those other guys hoisted a trophy in the Bronx and in a championship-or-bust town, the rest is just a footnote.

Despite not winning a title in the Bronx, he said “I enjoyed my time in New York more than you’ll ever know.” Yankees fans gave him an icy reception in his first start when his first five pitches as a Yankee failed to find the strike zone. He laughed looking back and summed up well the reason behind the unflinchingly high standards of our fan base: “You were expected to win.”

When I asked him about his favorite memory from his 8 years in New York, he went back to 1981, when a bulbous cap adorned the front of his Topps card and his young son toed the rubber at Yankee Stadium.

That year his son Travis fell out of a 3-story window during a family vacation at the Jersey Shore. Travis plunged into a 17-day coma and a month-long hospital stay, during which Reggie Jackson was a frequent visitor. When Travis finally walked about of the hospital, The Boss invited him to throw out the first pitch of the next home game. Tommy knew he could not handle that moment nor his wife who was pregnant, so he asked Mr. October to take his son out onto the field. After Travis delivered the pitch, Tommy remembered a deafening roar and Reggie picking his little son up while the Bronx faithful chanted “TRA-VIS! TRA-VIS!” “That’s New York,” he recalled wistfully, then added with a laugh, “Those were the same people who two years earlier told me I sucked.”

We passed the time easily and likely would have spoken longer, but our conversation ended abruptly when I heard Tommy say, “B-5… ah, crap I’m at the wrong gate. I’m supposed to be at B-15. There’s no one even around in this terminal.”

And baseball’s most famous elbow continued on his way.