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Getty Images

Who Is Tommy John, and Why Is There a Surgery Named After Him?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a baseball fan more than hearing the name of their team's star pitcher and the words "Tommy John surgery" in the same sentence. The surgery involves replacing the worn-out or deteriorated ulnar collateral ligament in a hurler's elbow with a tendon from another part of the body, and it was first performed back in 1974. Since then, over 500 major leaguers have had the procedure, and it puts the athlete out of the game for at least one full calendar year. Over time, more players have been able to return with most, if not all, of their talent intact. But bad luck, a poor work ethic, or a misguided rehab period can derail the player's career even further—sometimes out of baseball entirely.

When 20-year-old left-handed pitcher Thomas Edward John Jr. made it to the major leagues in 1963 as a Cleveland Indian, there weren't many options for pitchers who sustained serious injuries to their throwing arms. At that time, very few ballplayers were willing to undergo surgery on their arms, as it almost always meant the end of their careers. Players started to undergo arthroscopic knee surgeries then, but if a pitcher had a throbbing arm, they used palliative measures to treat it. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax retired in 1966 at age 30 because he suffered from chronic arthritis in his pitching arm and was worried that if he didn't stop playing baseball, he wouldn't be able to use his left hand for the rest of his life. (He said the cortisone injections, codeine, Butazolidan, and Capsolin he took at times to numb the pain left him "half high" on the mound.)

For the first 10 years of his career, Tommy John was known as a decent pitcher who couldn't throw very fast. The speed of his fastball was never anything to write home about, but he had a curveball that had helped him rack up a 28-2 record in high school. After two years on the Indians, John spent 1965-1971 as a member of the Chicago White Sox. The morning after a start in which he threw a complete game shutout, his arm hurt so much he couldn't even brush his teeth. (He wound up resting his arm on the sink and moved his face back and forth against the bristles of the toothbrush.) Despite the incident, John would later describe the pains he felt in the first half of his career merely as "soreness."

A trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972 gave John's career new life (his career record at that point was 84-91). Dodgers pitching coach Red Adams gave him confidence in the fastball everybody told him was too slow, pointing out it was the movement of his fastball that was the key. In his first year as a Dodger, John went 11-5, but on September 23, 1972 he jammed his pitching elbow while sliding into home base. Some bone chips in the elbow were jarred loose, ending his season. The team physician, Dr. Frank Jobe, cleaned up his elbow during the offseason, but Jobe and John's elbow would become reacquainted soon enough.

By July 17, 1974, John had transformed into a top-notch pitcher. He was 13-3 on the season when he delivered a pitch to Montreal Expo Hal Breeden that would change everything. "Right at the point where I put force on the pitch, the point where my arm is back and bent, something happened," Tommy John told Sports Illustrated. "It felt as if I had left my arm someplace else. It was as if my body continued to go forward and my left arm had just flown out to right field, independent of the rest of me. I heard this thudding sound in my elbow, then I felt a sharp pain." The pitch completely missed the strike zone. Amazingly, after rupturing the medial collateral ligament of his left elbow, he tried throwing another pitch (it sunk and hit home plate).

When John's arm didn't heal after a month's worth of rest, Dr. Jobe suggested a novel idea. Jobe had earlier grafted a tendon on a polio patient's ankle for stabilization, and he thought that maybe a tendon could be grafted to a pitcher's elbow, too. Without the surgery, Jobe told John that he would never pitch in the majors again. With the surgery, Jobe bumped those odds up to one in 100. After taking a brief moment to think about it, John said, "Let's do it."

On September 25, 1974, Jobe removed a tendon from John's right wrist and attached it to his left elbow. A second surgery was needed a few months later because the ulnar nerve was damaged, John's arm atrophied, and his pitching hand wrenched into a claw. After that, the rigorous rehabbing began. Still without feeling in two of his fingers, John taped the damaged digits to the fully-functioning ones so he could grip a baseball. He threw it against a wall until he got tired, later saying that he looked as polished "as a little boy throwing a ball against the steps of his back porch." He was also told to squeeze blobs of Silly Putty in his hand. In June 1975, he was finally able to uncurl his two paralyzed fingers. By late September, he was able to throw three innings in an exhibition.

John returned to the Dodgers' starting line-up in 1976 and posted a 10-10 record for the season. But it was the next year when John really excelled. In 1977, he finished second in voting for the Cy Young award and threw a complete game victory in the NLCS to send his team to the World Series. It was that pennant-clinching performance when Tommy John knew for sure he was back, maybe better than ever.

Incredibly, John didn't retire until 1989, at the age of 46. He played in 26 major league seasons over his career—only Nolan Ryan and Cap Anson, with their 27 seasons of service, have played more in the history of Major League Baseball. John won 124 games before the surgery, and 164 after the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction.

Because of the miraculous recovery of its pioneering patient, the term "Tommy John surgery" stuck. And why isn't it named for the doctor who invented it? Dr. Jobe has a simple explanation: "He has two first names—Tommy and John. It kind of just rolls off the tongue."

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General Mills
10 Winning Facts about Wheaties
General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
The Sandlot Is Returning to Theaters for Its 25th Anniversary
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Few films from the 1990s have grown in stature over the years like The Sandlot. Though it gained respectable reviews and box office receipts when it was released in April 1993, the movie's standing in pop culture has since ballooned into cult classic territory, and you can still find merchandise and even clothing lines dedicated to it today.

Now you can revisit the adventures of Smalls, Ham, Squints, and The Beast on the big screen when Fathom Events and Twentieth Century Fox, in association with Island World, bring The Sandlot back to theaters for its 25th anniversary. The event will be held in 400 theaters across the U.S. on July 22 at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., and Tuesday, July 24 at 2:00 p.m and 7:00 p.m. (all times local).

Each screening will come complete with a preview of a new documentary detailing the making of the movie, so if you wanted to know even more about how this coming-of-age baseball classic came to be, now’s your chance.

For more information about ticket availability in your area, head to the Fathom Events website. And if you want to dive into some more trivia about the movie—including the fact that it was filmed in only 42 days—we’ve got you covered.

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