Dr. Lewis Yocum, 1947-2013

One of the most important doctors in baseball history, Lewis Yocum, died of liver cancer yesterday at the age of 65. Yocum was an intern in Frank Jobe’s clinic when Jobe pioneered UCL replacement surgery in 1974 — Tommy John surgery is now ubiquitous in baseball, and Yocum was one of its greatest living practitioners. Numerous players tweeted that he had saved their careers; scroll to the bottom to see a few of them.

Though he was the Angels’ team doctor, taking that position over from Jobe, he treated players across the league, both position players and pitchers. In 2010, Will Carroll wrote that Yocum and James Andrews were both so mutually prominent across baseball that “one former GM jokingly said that he thought Yocum and Andrews had negotiated some sort of territorial agreement. “This side of the Mississippi is Andrews,” he laughed. “That side is Yocum.”” After Yocum died, Carroll compiled a long list of players whom Yocum was known to have personally treated. (The list is incomplete and skewed toward recent players, but it gives some sense of Yocum’s breadth of impact.)

Major patients: Stephen Strasburg, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jordan Zimmermann, Kendrys Morales, Ted Lilly, Robb Nen, John Lackey, Randy Wolf, C.J. Wilson, Francisco Liriano, Billy Wagner, Joakim Soria, Jake Westbrook, Cal Eldred, Scott Erickson, Daniel Hudson

Others: Chris Narveson, Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland, John Lamb, Ryan Kalish, Sergio Santos, David Riske, Tsuyoshi Wada, Trevor Crowe, Anthony Reyes, Danny Duffy, Felipe Paulino, David Aardsma, Hector Ambriz, Carlos Gutierrez, Mike Aviles, Zach Miner, John Franco, Lucas Giolito, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jeremy Bonderman, Jose Arredondo

Yocum published a great deal of research on sports surgery, frequently writing with Jobe or with another of the doctors in his clinic, such as Neal ElAttrache (the doctor who examined Roy Halladay’s shoulder earlier this month). His most recent publication was posted to PubMed on May 10, “Treatment of Partial Ulnar Collateral Ligament Tears in the Elbow With Platelet-Rich Plasma,” and he and his colleagues noted in the abstract that “The results of this study indicate that PRP is an effective option to successfully treat partial UCL tears of the elbow in athletes.”

Yocum kept his cancer diagnosis quiet, so his death came as a shock. However, as Carroll wrote in 2012, “Yocum has slowed his pace a bit in recent years. He’s used that time to develop a series of young doctors, both at Kerlan-Jobe and around the country, that will continue his work.” Yocum leaves a monumental legacy in the game, in the dozens of careers he directly affected — or outright saved — and the surgical procedure that he and others improved so much that it is the closest that baseball comes to a sure thing. As Frank Jobe himself said, “He could probably do a Tommy John operation better than I could.”

(Yocum himself would never consider Tommy John a sure thing. In an interview conducted last year by Collegiate Baseball magazine, he said there was an “85-90 percent success rate.” One key to the recovery is the rehab process, which Carroll detailed in 2011.)

Yocum’s opinions were so authoritative, and he was consulted so frequently as a primary or secondary opinion, that his name was embroiled in several disputes between clubs and players. The reason was simple: he was better than most other team’s doctors. “I sought him out because he was the best,” Ryan Madson told the Sporting News. “It was sort of like saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to the Reds (doctors). It wasn’t an easy thing to do. I just wanted the best.”

One controversy came last year, when the Nationals made the unpopular decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg, whose Tommy John surgery had been performed by Yocum. The team spoke to Yocum throughout the 2012 season, and Yocum caused a minor splash when he denied having advised the Nationals to shut Strasburg down. The next day, he acknowledged having been in touch with the team and said he supported the shutdown.

Another controversy erupted in 2001. Pedro Martinez received a diagnosis of “inflammation” from Red Sox team doctor Bill Morgan, but then consulted Yocum, who diagnosed him with a rotator cuff tear. The team was initially defiant. “The team is not going to shut Pedro down. We pay him a lot of money to pitch,” said general manager Dan Duquette. “He’s fine. If there was a concern about his health we wouldn’t ask him to pitch. He’s not hurt. I was encouraged about how he threw.” But five days later, the team made the decision to shut down Martinez for the rest of the season. Pedro was reluctant to pitch because he could feel the pain, but Yocum’s diagnosis helped to determine the outcome.

One simple measure of Yocum’s impact was noted in a tweet by Los Angeles Times beat writer Bill Shaikin: “How important was Dr. Lewis Yocum? Scott Boras has tweeted twice, once today and once upon the death of Marvin Miller.” Boras’s tweet is not particularly eloquent, but it helps to show just how monumentally important Yocum had become. “From Scott Boras: “Dr. Yocum was a caring genius who had a profound impact on the game and its players. His plaque in the hall awaits.””

In early May, the Angels dedicated their athletic training room to Yocum. He practiced medicine for the Angels for 36 years, and he is survived by his wife and two children.

Here is a selection of the players who thanked Yocum for helping to save their careers:

Perhaps the greatest tribute came from Mark Mulder, who credited Yocum for his candor:

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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I saw that Mulder tweet last night, and agree with you that it is remarkably poignant. This seems like a huge loss for the sport. My respects to his family.