Gary Nolan Surgery

By now, most baseball fans know the story of Tommy John surgery. In 1974, John — a solid pitcher for a decade — blew out his elbow while pitching for Los Angeles against the Montreal Expos. “Blew out his elbow” is not a medical term, of course, but there was no need for medical terms when it came to pitchers in 1974. Once a pitcher tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm, he was finished. That was exactly what Tommy John had done.

In John’s case, though, a pioneer was watching. Frank Jobe grew up in North Carolina, became interested in medicine while serving as a medical supplies supply sergeant in the army during World War II (and while watching doctors patch up soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge), served as a family doctor until his interests turned toward orthopedics. When he saw John’s elbow pop, he was the Dodgers orthopedic doctor. And he had this wild idea about replacing John’s torn elbow ligament with a healthy one already in his body.

Jobe famously gave John a 100-to-1 chance of ever pitching again. John eagerly took those odds; a one-percent chance is, after all, better than zero. As it turned out, the odds were much better than 100-to-1. John came back and pitched better with the new ligament than he had with the old. And a baseball revolution began. The list of pitchers who have had their careers saved by Tommy John surgery is mind-boggling — there is a movement to put Dr. Frank Jobe in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and certainly there are few who have impacted the game more.

That’s the obvious story to recount today, one day after Frank Jobe died at the age of 88. But there’s another Frank Jobe story I discovered while writing The Machine that is, perhaps, just as telling about the man.

Gary Nolan was a brilliant young pitcher. Few remember him that way, but Nolan was a phenom in the same class as Bob Feller or Dwight Gooden. He was 18 years old when he made his first start in the big leagues — he and Feller are the only two pitchers in baseball history to strike out 10 or more big league batters in a game before they turned 19 years old. Nolan as an 18/19 year old had a lower ERA, better WHIP, more strikeouts and fewer walks than the National League Rookie of the Year — a pretty fair pitcher named Tom Seaver.

“Don’t be scared,” Feller had told the kid that first year. “Make them scared of you.”

Not long after that, Nolan’s arm began to hurt. It was this sharp pain that made him wince with every throw. He couldn’t stay out there. He made just 22 starts his second year, 15 his third. But what hurt even more was this: Nobody believed him. Doctors had looked at his arm in the primitive way that doctors looked at arms in those days, and they found nothing wrong. Of course doctors didn’t KNOW that they were looking at arms in primitive ways, so they felt sure that there was nothing wrong … except in Gary Nolan’s head.

“Pitchers have to throw with pain,” his Reds manager Sparky Anderson told him. “Bob Gibson says every pitch he’s ever thrown cut him like a knife. You gotta pitch with pain, kid.”

This cut harder than the jolting pain in his arm. The Reds — this included doctors, management but, more painfully, his teammates — thought he simply wasn’t tough enough. Rub a little dirt on it. Grit your teeth and bear it. Pitch through the pain. He tried because that’s what was expected. He pitched 250 agonizing innings in 1970, 244 more in 1971. He grew so used to the sharp pain, that he simply came to think of it as normal. In 1972 he was having a poor-man’s version of the legendary season Steve Carlton was having in Philadelphia.

At the end of July:

Nolan: 14-6, 1.71 ERA, 152 innings, 78 strikeouts, 28 walks, .228 batting average against.
Carlton: 15-6, 2.37 ERA, 205 innings, 208 strikeouts, 54 walks, .206 batting average against.

And then the pain climbed to a higher plane. It was too much. He couldn’t handle it. The reporters asked him how much it hurt. “Enough to make you cry,” he said. Teammates rolled their eyes. Letters to the editor in the Cincinnati papers questioned his manhood.

“When’s Nolan going to pitch again?” reporters asked Sparky Anderson.

“Hell, I don’t know. Ask him,” Sparky barked angrily.

It was at this time that the Reds did one of the most bizarre things a baseball team has ever done. Reds executive Dick Wagner called Nolan and said they had figured out a way to fix his arm. They were sending Nolan to … a dentist. Yeah. A dentist. Some crackpot dentist had reached the Reds with the message that Nolan’s arm problems were clearly the result of an abscessed tooth. Nolan actually went to the dentist. The dentist actually pulled a tooth. This really happened, not in the Dark Ages but in 1972. It’s probably lucky that the Dentist didn’t pull out leeches. The pain, strangely, did not go away. Nolan pitched two games in 1973 and he did not pitch at all in 1974. His career seemed over. And he felt dead.

Then, in desperation, Nolan went to see Frank Jobe, orthopedic doctor for the Reds’ biggest rivals, the Dodgers. The Reds, of course, were opposed to this … but Nolan had reached the desperate point where he would try anything. He, like every other pitcher in baseball, had heard Jobe was different from other doctors. The first thing Nolan noticed was that Jobe took an X-Ray of Nolan’s shoulder from a different angle. This was new. And because of that, Jobe found what every other doctor had missed — a one-inch bone spur floating around in Nolan’s shoulder and slicing him every single time he threw a baseball.

Finding the bone spur and getting rid of it, of course, are two different things … but Jobe thought removing it was considerably less complicated than replacing Tommy John’s torn elbow ligament. The Reds, of course, were opposed to the surgery. They thought he could pitch through the pain. It really is staggering how disposable baseball players were to teams in those days. Jobe performed the surgery. And Nolan — though he could never be as brilliant as he was at 19 — no longer felt the pain and he came back to the Big Red Machine and won 15 games in 1975, another 15 in 1976 for two of the greatest teams in baseball history.

But the extraordinary thing is how Gary Nolan looks back not at the career-saving surgery itself but at something entirely different. He looks back and sees the kindness of Frank Jobe. For six or seven years, Nolan had been treated as something less than a man. He’d had his pain mocked and his toughness doubted. He’d been told again and again and again that the agony was all in his head, that it was his duty to pitch through it, and this false aura of fragility had come to define him in the eyes of American baseball fans.

Then, this soft-spoken doctor from North Carolina came back from the X-Rays and pointed at the source of all that pain — there it was, as real as a swing and miss strikeout.

“I have no idea how you pitched in that sort of pain,” Frank Jobe said to him. “You must have been in agony.”

Thirty-five years later, Gary Nolan could still recite those two sentences, word-for-word.

25 thoughts on “Gary Nolan Surgery

  1. murr2825

    I’ve told this story in this forum before but bears repeating:

    Was on a cruise in 1996. Sitting to my right was an older man who immediately engaged me in conversation. We exchanged first names-his was Frank. Frank asked me a few questions including where was I from?

    Syracuse NY, I told him and he replied that he had a colleague there and told me his name. “I know him,” I told Frank. “We have the same name and I’ve met him a few times.”

    Then it dawned on me…the guy he was talking about was an orthopedic surgeon. “Wait a minute…you’re Frank JOBE?!” I said, trying (and failing) not to sound awestruck.

    “Yes, I am. You a baseball fan?” he asked, and deflected any anticipated praise on my end with chit chat about favorite teams and players.

    A truly class act and may he rest in peace.

    Reply
  2. Carl

    Hi Joe,

    Loved your book on the BRM. in the book you did a terrific job of describing and reminding people just how good a pitcher the young Gary Nolan was. Also found amazing in the book how Sparky Anderson was upset about Johnny Bench having a sore shoulder after a home plate collision, when after all the -rays found nothing wrong with the shoulder.

    Too bad they didn’t have MRI’s in those days.

    Reply
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  4. ajnrules

    I’ve heard this story before (possibly from you), but it’s still a wonderful story. Jobe’s kindness and humility is especially inspirational since I am starting my medical career.

    RIP to a great physician

    Reply
  5. Salvo

    Nice article about I guy I remember from my baseball cards, but who always seemed to be hurt.

    One quibble: at the end of July, 1972, Nolan was 13-2, not 14-6 (he finished the season with only 5 losses); 14-6 was the Reds’ team record in his starts to that point.

    Reply
  6. Michael Green

    Wonderful story and Frank Jobe, from all I have read, was just a lovely man. I love Brent Strom’s line, that he’s the Buzz Aldrin of the story because he was the second guy to have the Tommy John surgery.

    As to Nolan and the Reds, I remember all of the sore arms. I read years later that after Sparky and his staff were fired, Larry Shepard, the pitching coach, was hired by the Giants. Within a half-season, every Giants pitcher had sore arms. Hm.

    Reply
  7. Zachary Schmitt

    That’s truly what makes a great doctor. Not necessarily the groundbreaking techniques, which are wonderful, obviously, but the compassion he showed in believing his patient and doing whatever he could to make him well again.

    Reply
    1. Dave

      When did Jobe become the team doctor for the Dodgers? My memory is fuzzy, but I recall reading that in spring training of either ’63 or ’65, Koufax had been injured in both of the previous seasons, the Dodgers had him, in either his second or third outing of the spring, throw more than 140 pitches, to see what they’d be able to get out of him that upcoming season. Players back then, with much lower salaries so they weren’t as big of “investments,” were treated far differently than today.

      (Anybody know more about the “incident” I’m remembering?)

      Reply
  8. theycutthepower

    This has exactly nothing to do with anything, but I just found it interesting that Gary Nolan was basically done after age 28, while his top Baseball Ref comp, John Tudor, more or less began his career in earnest after that age. Hard to imagine two more different pitching styles, but still: combine those two… hell of a career!

    As I said, nothing to do with anything.

    Great story, Joe.

    Reply
  9. Pat

    Joe, I am 34 years old and have read probably two hours of sports related content a day for the past 25 years. You are the best writer I have ever come across. You come up with maybe 30 of these types of gems a year. I hate human interest stories because they’re usually trite, but your writing never comes off that way. Hats off to you. You represent the very best of your profession.

    Reply
  10. Derek

    Somewhere, Dusty Baker is thinking, “I can do MORE” I’ve seen Nolan’s stats, was blown away by how good he was that young, and wondered what exactly happened other than “SA” posted next to his name-from the Sports Encyclopedia Baseball book.

    Reply
  11. Rick Rodstrom

    Another unique angle on a familiar story from Pos. Great stuff. I imagine Frank Jobe must have faced his own kind of ridicule within the medical community for his bizarre idea of switching ligaments around, and perhaps this made him more sympathetic to people like Gary Nolan.

    Reply
  12. Drew

    True story – I played minor league baseball in the early 80′s and was in a league that included the Reds’ rookie ball team. Second game of the season, some kid from the Reds pitched five innings against us and struck out fourteen guys. One of our guys popped up. It was the most dominating performance I ever saw and led me to wonder what in the world I was doing in pro ball.

    Next time through, same kid pitches for the Reds and we just blast him. He was lobbing the ball up there. What the?

    Turns out the Reds organization recipe to cure all their major league arm problems was to pitch their guys as often as possible, often on short rest.onky the strong survive, so to speak. By the second go-round of the schedule, these guys were exhausted.

    Talk about treating the symptoms. I wonder how many guys they wrecked back then.

    Reply
  13. tayloraj42

    I know the Pirates are somewhat infamous for never having a Hall of Fame pitcher, but until this article I’d forgotten how close the Reds are to that designation, as well. Outside of Eppa Rixey, I can’t find another Hall of Fame pitcher who spent the majority of their career in Cincinnati, and he was a reclamation project by the time he landed there; they’ve never had one who spent his entire career there. On the other hand, they’ve had a huge number of guys who were high-quality but burned out early: Nolan and Gullett, O’Toole, Jay, Maloney, Soto, Rijo, Donahue, and Hahn are the ones that come to mind. I assume some of that is just bad luck; a lot of promising young pitchers burn out, but it does seem extreme in the Reds’ case.

    Reply
  14. Michael Green

    Related to these, remember Carl Erskine’s chapter in The Boys of Summer, about how he developed arm trouble in maybe his second major league start and was told to keep pitching, and thought he should, anyway. And it ruined his arm, although he lasted a decade.

    Reply
  15. Luis

    When I first heard of Tommy John I was 7-8 years old, living in Venezuela and knowing no English. I always thought they meant Tom Millón (Tom Million) which I thought was a nickname from the surgery.

    Back then it made perfect sense cause you had the 6million dollars man but that was for a leg, an arm and an eye. $1 million for an elbow didn’t sound outrageous.

    Reply
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  17. Tom

    I think a very interesting story would be which organizations had developed the most hall of famers by position – most pitchers, most first basemen, OF, etc. Or you could go further and just list each organization and HOFers by position. I guess you would have to have a standard for what “developed” was but that would be an interesting proposition.

    Reply
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  19. kb

    As an exercise in boredom I went ahead and sorted all big league pitchers in the HoF by teams they debuted and/or signed with. I excluded players who debuted before 1900 as most of them came up with teams that no longer exist.
    A’s – 6
    Braves – 3
    Cards – 3
    Cubs – 4
    Dodgers – 3
    Giants – 6

    Reply
  20. kb

    Indians – 7 (although one is Satchell Paige, you may not want to include him)
    Mets – 2
    Orioles – 1
    Phillies – 4
    Pirates – 2 (Dazzy Vance & Burleigh Grimes, both of whom did nothing of note in a Pirates uniform)
    Red Sox – 2 (Babe Ruth, him you know, and Red Ruffing who was fairly mediocre in Boston)
    Reds – 2 (Jesse Haines and Christy Mathewson, both did most of their good work elsewhere)
    Tigers – 1 (seriously, just Hal Newhouser)
    White Sox – 3
    Yankees – only 2

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