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In his more formal moments with his white coat on, Doc is Robert Keith Kerlan, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon; assistant professor of clinical surgery, department of orthopedics, University of Southern California; senior attending physician at the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles County; orthopedic consultant to the Jockeys' Guild, the California Angels, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings, the San Diego Padres and, until last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As a result, Kerlan's name keeps appearing in the sports pages (not entirely to his pleasure); sportswriters are his friends, and they want to give him a plug (which he doesn't need). Writers have a fertile field in Bob Kerlan, though. Last April he repaired Bill Shoemaker's fractured pelvis and the year before that his broken leg. He was in charge of Sandy Koufax's arthritic elbow during the last painful years of his career, of Elgin Baylor's knee, of Juan Marichal's back, Duke Snider's knee, Chi Chi Rodriguez' thumb. Tommy Davis' ankle, Robin Roberts' neck, Al Kaline's foot, and so on through the pantheon of wounded heroes who owe him so much.
Perhaps it is not a nice thing to say about any man, but Doc Kerlan is one of those rare public personalities who is virtually without enemies or serious critics. In fact, he is the focal point of so much affection and admiration that opinions of him grow fairly monotonous. "The way we all talk about him," says Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Lakers and Kings, "you would think he was dead."
The affection for Kerlan is easy enough to understand. He is that ideal of psychiatry—a round peg in a round hole. Born on Florence Nightingale's birthday (May 12) in 1922, the son of a country doctor in Aitken, Minn., he started his college career on a basketball scholarship at UCLA at the age of 16, when most kids are trying to decide what kind of tonic to put on their hair. Not Doc, as he was known even in those days. He was certain that his future lay in either medicine or sport. After a year's fling at college basketball he opted for medicine, and the losing half of him metamorphosed into one of the major sports fans of our era.
The professional admiration is something else. As an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Robert Kerlan might well have gone through his career competently, even brilliantly, healing the broken arms, sprained knees, torn ligaments and stiff necks of housewives and businessmen in that western corner of Los Angeles known as the Crenshaw District, where he hung up his shingle 19 years ago. Because he is as capable as he is and as generous with his talent—as physician and teacher—his reputation might have spread clear across town.
But because he was such a sports fan, Kerlan more or less stumbled into "athletic medicine," as he likes to call it. The first stumble came when he and a friend, an internist named Bob Woods, started spending their free evenings at Los Angeles' old Wrigley Field, where the L.A. Angels of the Pacific Coast League used to commit their sins. They decided to apply for the job of team physicians, in return for which they got free seats in the ball park. They were serving in this capacity when Walter O'Malley brought the Dodgers to town.
Kerlan and Woods wrote to Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers' general manager, asking if they could continue their duties with the new team when it took up residence in the Coliseum. Bavasi was preoccupied with other matters, so he didn't get around to interviewing the two young doctors until the day before the season started. Even then he thought they wanted to take care of the customers who fainted from heat prostration and the sight of fumbled grounders. They finally made their intentions clear, and Bavasi recently claimed that Kerlan was the most valuable man he signed up for the Dodgers in his 10 years with the club in Los Angeles.
Kerlan's early years with the Dodgers were instructive, if not medically historic. Some of the older players had brought their ailments West with them— Duke Snider a pair of creaky knees that had already been carved on, and Ed Roebuck an arm that was as limber as a medieval drawbridge. So Kerlan began getting on-the-job training in the unique maladies of athletes.
There is a kind of intimate locker room view of sport in listening to Kerlan describe his cases. His is a special language—half clubhouse, half surgical ward. "When Duke got out here," Kerlan recalled the other day, "he had this operated knee, and he was having this recurrent hydrathrosis, or water on the knee. Sometimes in these operated knees an athlete will be bothered by some persistent formation of fluid in the joint on usage. Duke would get an awful lot of fluid, and it would keep him from running properly. I used to drain the fluid occasionally and put in some anti-inflammatory material. One night I took it out before a game, but I couldn't get it all, which occasionally happens, and I was kind of upset. But apparently I'd left in just about the amount the body needed, because it didn't form any more fluid. And I never had to tap Duke's knee again. Since then I've done that on other occasions and found that the same thing happened.
"Roebuck," Kerlan now recalls, "was probably the bravest, toughest player I've ever seen. He had a completely frozen shoulder and would tear it loose by pitching, to such a degree that the whole shoulder-blade area and underneath his armpit would turn black and blue. I told Buzzie he'd never make it, but I was the happiest person in the world when he did, I'll tell you. Guys with guts like that "just don't come around very often."