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Depending on how old you are and when you started following baseball, you might think of Tommy John as …

  • A near-Hall-of-Fame level pitcher
  • An old man keeping Reggie Jackson company with the early 1980s California Angels
  • An old man who took Phil Niekro‘s place with the late 1980s New York Yankees
  • An elbow surgery
  • Underwear (get out!)

All of those are true to some extent, but there is probably one role you have overlooked in John’s considerable baseball résumé: he forced Topps to break with baseball card tradition and made them look like faithful friends in the process.

1975 Topps Tommy John

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Strangest Sensation

On July 17, 1974, Tommy John was at the top of the hill when it came to National League pitchers, sporting a 13-3 record with a nifty 2.59 ERA. Things were fine until the third inning of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ game against the Montreal Expos that night.

With runners on first and second and no outs, John’sa one-one count pitch to Hal Breeden left the hurler with the “strangest sensation I had ever known” and with a feeling that “I had left my arm someplace else”  (see the whole story of that fateful pitch on the Tommy John page at the SABR Bio Project).

John also heard a strange *pop* on the play.

This is a familiar and sickening scenario in today’s game, but it was even more scary and pretty much uncharted territory way back when. After a month of rest and ice and x-rays and compression and everything else anyone could think of, John and Dodgers team physician, Dr. Frank Jobe, decided on a desperate course of action in an attempt to save John’s career.

Jobe would replace John’s damaged (they didn’t know how badly) ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from his right (non-throwing) forearm. It was something Jobe had theorized was possible for a long time, but he’d never had a willing subject.

But at 31 years old and near the top of his game, the lefty John was game to give it a go.

It seemed like some sort of voodoo to most casual observers, and not many gave John a chance to return in anything close to his best form, but there wasn’t much to lose.

Cardboard Faith

Perhaps Jobe’s and John’s relative eagerness to try something — anything — to keep Tommy’s Major League run going had its genesis in the heart of the 1960s. After all, just eight years earlier, in 1966, the great Sandy Koufax had retired at only 30 years of age due to continuing elbow problems despite just finishing off maybe the most dominant five-year pitching streak in the history of the game.

If John and Jobe did key off the loss of Koufax, they may not have been the only ones.

For most of their existence, Topps’ tacit policy was to produce cards of active players only. Thus, if you retired or moved on to Japan, you didn’t get a slot in the new year’s set regardless of how good you were the year before.

That’s why we didn’t get a Koufax career-capper card in 1967 despite his 27-9, 1.73, 323 K showing in 1966.

It’s also why we got a 1989 Topps Cecil Fielder card — he didn’t land with the Hanshin Tigers until December 1989 — but not a base 1990 Topps card. American collectors had to wait until the Topps Traded set that fall to see Fielder with the Detroit Tigers.

But John was kind of an in-between case.

1976 Topps Tommy John

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On the one hand, he was a legitimate star who had not retired despite his serious injury.

On the other, he was damaged goods and nobody — including Frank Jobe or John himself — had any idea if the Terre Haute, Indiana, native would ever make it back to the Big Leagues.

What was Topps to do?

Well …

Maybe they just trusted John’s non-retirement.

Maybe they felt like he had been too much of an integral part of the Dodgers’ 1974 National League pennant to ignore.

Or maybe they had some inside knowledge of Jobe’s mastery.

Whatever the case, Topps went ahead with their 1975 set as if nothing had happened to John’s left arm, slotting Tommy on card #47 (check current listings on eBay here — affiliate link).

Just like that, Tommy John was one up on Sandy Koufax.

Follow-On Faith

All during that summer of 1975, while John worked with Jobe and Dodgers teammate Mike Marshall to rehab John’s now-bionic elbow, collectors were pulling his mug from their wax packs.

Maybe even more remarkably, Topps must have been encouraged by whatever reports they were hearing out of LA during that lost season, because they also included John in their 1976 set (card #416 — check current eBay listings (affiliate link)).

Instead of a stat line for 1975, that green-backed pasteboard said simply, “ON DISABLED LIST.”

1976 Topps Tommy John (back)

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By the time those Bicentennial cards were in collectors’ hands, though, John was ready to leave the DL behind for good.

One day shy of 21 months after he blew out his elbow, Tommy John returned to the mound for the Dodgers and went five innings in a loss to the Atlanta Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 16, 1976. The next two starts lasted seven and eight innings, respectively, and by the end of the season, John had logged 207 innings over 31 starts, finishing 10-10 with a 3.09 ERA.

It was a baseball miracle, but John was just getting started.

In 1978, he won 20 games for the first time, then did it again in both 1979 and 1980 during his first go-round with the Yankees.

In all, John pitched in the Majors until 1989 and actually won more games (164) after his injury than before (124).

And, while John fell short of Cooperstown induction, he did string together a Hall-of-Fame baseball card run, appearing in Topps sets every year from 1964 through 1989.

All it took was a little faith all around, thousands of hours of work and buckets of sweat, and a (temporary) break in Topps tradition.

That all seems about right, doesn’t it? If Tommy John could overcome thousands of years of physiology, why not a bit of stuffy, dusty cardboard stodgery?

(Check out our other player card posts here.)

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