If Tommy John is going to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the current social media effort by fans across the nation just might accomplish what no one else has been able to do.
John, born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, and a Watertown resident for more than three years, pitched on both coasts during his major league career, mainly for two of baseball’s most storied franchises, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees.
Now, fans from Corona, Calif., to Watertown, N.Y., and everywhere in between, have orchestrated an all-out push, from endorsements by John’s former teammates and famed country singers to letters of petition to the Hall of Fame, that they hope ends with John’s election to the Hall when he becomes eligible again in late 2023.
John, now 78, and recovered from a hospital stay with COVID-19 in December, spent 1995-2009 on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot with no more than 32 percent of the vote in any year (a player must appear on 75 percent of the ballots for election). The Veterans Committee passed him over in 2011, the Expansion Era Committee in 2014 and the Modern Baseball Era Committee in 2018 and again in 2019.
All of this despite John, who also pitched for the White Sox, Indians, Angels and A’s, ranking as one of just eight pitchers all-time to make 700 starts and posting the most career victories without reaching the exclusive 300 (288).
“He’s achieved what other players have achieved that are in the Hall and it’s time to fix that,” said Ted Doyle, who grew up a Tommy John fan in California during the 1970s and created the Facebook group “Tommy John Cooperstown” last November. “What we’re doing with the Facebook group, the media campaign, the radio spots ... it’s really just saying, ‘OK, Hall of Fame, please take note.’”
John, who lived in Watertown from 2011-15 after meeting his current wife, Watertown native Cheryl Zeldin John, played 26 seasons, more than all but two players, Nolan Ryan and Cap Anson. He pitched until age 46, won six World Series games and was runner-up for the Cy Young Award twice. But he never led the league in strikeouts, victories or earned-run average.
Some Hall evaluators believe that if John’s stats aren’t enough, the revolutionary ligament replacement surgery that he underwent in 1974 and now bears his name should be reason to place him in the Hall, given that it extended his career 13 seasons and also saved the careers of countless pitchers who have undergone the now commonplace operation.
John agreed to what was then an experimental surgery, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe, as the only hope for continuing his career. Jobe himself expected it to fail.
“My (first) wife (Sally) was pregnant with our first child, which concerned Dr. Jobe,” John said. “He said, ‘If this doesn’t work, and it probably won’t, what do you have lined up to support your family?’” ... I said, ‘Well, I have a friend of mine back home who was a car dealer, I can do stuff for him.’”
After undergoing the surgery on both his left pitching elbow and his right forearm on Sept. 25, 1974, John didn’t pitch at all in 1975, then came back in 1976, starting 31 games for the Dodgers, going 10-10 and winning the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. A year later, he was a 20-game winner for the first time in his career. He had amazed the baseball world.
Doyle, growing up not far from Los Angeles at the time, was enthralled.
“He was the guy,” said Doyle, 56. “If I had been left-handed, I would’ve emulated him. ... I just loved how he approached the game. He was just a workhorse, got in and got it done and he was all about the team.”
Doyle, who lives in Corona, Calif., rekindled his interested in John again in 2020 when he returned to baseball card and memorabilia collecting, a hobby he knew as a boy. Doyle looked up John, who lives in nearby Indio (but is moving to Florida later this month), hoping to get an autograph and thinking he had reached John’s agent. But he had actually contacted Cheryl.
“She said, ‘Tommy loves to see fans, why don’t you come out?’” Doyle said. “So my wife and I drove out to see them. ... They invited us in and here I thought I was going to be in and out, get a signature, hi and bye. We were there for over an hour, it was the coolest experience. I’m sitting across from him, he’s telling baseball stories, he’s listening to me.”
Impressed, Doyle returned home and researched John’s career and couldn’t believe what he saw.
“After that experience I’m just thinking about it and I’m looking at his stats and it’s like, “good god, as a fan, I took it personal, I got angry,” Doyle said. “It was like, how is this guy not in the Hall of Fame?”
Less than a month after meeting John, Doyle created “Tommy John Cooperstown” and the campaign to publicize John’s Hall of Fame merits began on Dec. 3.
The page has grown steadily, to 724 members as of Saturday, and continues an aggressive effort that has included publicity from various Watertown media figures, as well as others with north country ties who are avid John fans.
Bruce “Mac” Macfarlane lived in Clayton for nearly a dozen years after college and founded the Clayton Country Jam in 2011, which featured headlining country artists and tribute bands at the Clayton Opera House through 2016.
While Macfarlane was promoting the show at country music station Froggy 97 in Watertown in 2011, Tommy John, a country music fan, walked into the studio for a separate interview.
“He came in the door and I haven’t had a lot of people in my life where I get star-struck, but I did then,” Macfarlane, 67, said.
John then attended a Willie Nelson tribute concert in Clayton. Macfarlane, a Yankees fan, became friends with John on Facebook, and Macfarlane, who now lives in Vista, Calif., just visited John at his home last weekend.
In the nine months of the Tommy John Cooperstown Facebook page, the former pitcher’s support staff has expanded to an eclectic group and features video endorsements of John’s career from country singers Tim McGraw and Toby Keith, former Yankees teammates Bucky Dent and Mickey Rivers, political figures Andrew Giuliani and Roger Williams, even former Happy Days actor Donny Most, who hopes to make a movie about John, and TV personality Kato Kaelin.
“We’ve got a couple years to build this thing, so by the time it’s said and done, and it’s awesome right now ... (it) will grow to geometric proportions,” Macfarlane said.
Doyle has talked to the Hall of Fame director of communications Craig Muder, trying to reach the ears of the Modern Baseball Committee, a 16-member group comprised of Hall of Fame members, executives and media who will vote in December 2023 to again determine John’s fate.
The push also includes a website, tommyjohncooperstown.org, a GoFundMe page to raise money for advertising, and a letter-writing campaign to the Hall’s Historical Overview Committee, urging John’s election.
Doyle, Macfarlane and others hope to generate more interest and Facebook group members this week as former Yankee Derek Jeter is inducted into the Hall of Fame on Wednesday in Cooperstown. John’s eight-year tenure with the Yankees was longer than with any other team.
The question of whether the social-media effort is enough to draw the attention of knowledgeable Hall committee members could be answered by Billy Powell, a Houston resident, who helped Doyle start the Facebook group.
Powell runs the Facebook page “Baseball Nostalgia and Now,” which boasts 7,600 members, as well as a couple of Indiana basketball pages with thousands more followers. Powell, an Indiana native like Tommy John, has seen what Facebook promotion can do for an athlete.
“I know of seven people who have made it into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame based on (the Indiana Hoosier) page,” said Powell, who also advocated for John’s induction into the Baseball Hall.
John, for his part, stays away from Hall of Fame talk, shrugging off questions with some advice his father told him 60 years ago.
“When I signed to play baseball at the age of 18 (in) 1961, he said, ‘Tom, no matter what you do in baseball, if you play for 20 years, you play for 20 days, all you’ll be is Tommy John from Terre Haute, Indiana,” said John, whose Hall of Fame bid has now lasted as many years as his entire MLB career. “... I can’t control Hall of Fame voting so I don’t worry about it. If I could control it and I couldn’t get in, then I’d be miserable.”
But John doesn’t hesitate to talk about his pitching ability, which ultimately produced his Hall qualifications. John says Pete Rose named him one of the three toughest pitchers he ever faced. He also tells the story of when he was a broadcaster for the Minnesota Twins in the 1990s and the team was playing in Milwaukee.
Hank Aaron was in town and the Twins broadcast booth wanted Aaron to visit and answer a few questions. Aaron arrived and John’s broadcasting partner Dick Bremer fired questions at The Hammer, asking him to name the toughest pitcher he ever faced. Was it Gibson, Koufax or Drysdale?
“And (Aaron) said, ‘you know (Milwaukee broadcaster Bob) Uecker asked me the same question and I’ll tell you the same answer,’” John recounted. “(It’s) that S.O.B sitting next to you.’
“Hank Aaron said I never gave him a pitch that he could pull,” John added.
Whether the Hall Committee listens to those former players or the fans who point out John’s record 188 career no-decisions that kept him from 300 wins, is something that will play out two years from now, when John will be 80.
“We know we’re not the ones that are going to vote here,” Doyle said. “But if we can bring that awareness that, hey Hall of Fame, the fans love Tommy John, it’s time that you fix a wrong here and put him in.”
TOMMY JOHN STATS
MLB career: 1963-89
Career length: 26 seasons (2nd all-time)
Career starts: 700 (8th all-time)
Career win-loss record: 288-231
Career strikeouts: 2,245
Career ERA: 3.34
Season highs: 276.1 IP (1979); 22 Wins (1980); 138 SOs (1966/1970); 6 SHO* (1967/1980); 1.98 ERA (1968)
* - led league each year
TOMMY JOHN ON:
HIS PITCHING REPERTOIRE: “I threw a fastball and a curveball,” he said. “If I threw a 100 pitches in a ballgame and I had good stuff, I threw 85 fastballs at least ... I threw in the upper 80s, mid 80s, lower 80s. I went up an down. I wanted movement and I wanted control. ... Like Greg Maddux.”
HIS WORKHORSE REPUTATION: “After surgery, I pitched 13 years, never missed a start,” he said, “and I pitched out of the bullpen between starts, so how about that? With a surgically repaired elbow. My god, now, you’ve got 57 pitches, you’re done.”
TODAY’S GAME: “I don’t even watch baseball anymore,” he said. “It’s not the game I played.”
MOST DIFFICULT BATTER TO GET OUT: Ken Griffey Sr.
HIS TEAMMATES: John said the teammates he enjoyed the most were Gary Peters and Joe Horlen (White Sox), Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker and Rick Rhoden (Dodgers) and Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph and Roy White (Yankees). But he said he considered them co-workers, not friends. “My friends did not play baseball,” he said. “They were neighbors, we went to church with them or had dinner with them and all that.”
COMING BACK TO WATERTOWN: Tommy John and his wife Cheryl will return to Watertown for an appearance at a fundraising effort by Republican candidate for New York State governor Andrew Giuliani. The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Elks Club.