The two injuries—one a sudden breakdown of the left elbow, the other a "gradual erosion" of the right shoulder—are not as unrelated as they seem. Both fall under the umbrella classification of "sore arm," and both have the same primary cause—too much throwing. Any such injury, according to Dr. Jobe, "is a prime example of the end result of long-term stress on the arm. We call it the Overuse Syndrome. If a person throws very hard for a long period of time, the body responds with an inflammatory reaction. This can cause a scar, calcification, degeneration and rupture of the ligaments. The difference between throwing a ball hard enough to get a major league hitter out and hurting the arm is infinitesimal."
The sore arm is endemic to pitching. As a race driver fears a crash, so a pitcher fears that fateful twinge in the elbow or shoulder. A career can end with a snap of the wrist. The effort involved in throwing a baseball hard 100 times or more in the space of two or three hours literally tears at bone and muscle. The pitcher is, therefore, a creature apart. Other players can function with sore arms, but the pitcher who cannot throw is finished. His arm has a life—and death—separate from the rest of him.
Some of the game's finest pitchers have had their athletic lives ended prematurely by a failing arm. "I pitched against guys in the minors I thought were surefire," says John. "Then I never heard of them again—sore arms." In 1950, Paul Pettit, a fireballing lefthander, was signed out of a Southern California high school by the Pirates for a then-record bonus of $100,000. But Pettit hurt his arm before he won a major league game, and his lifetime record is 1-2 for parts of two seasons. He finished as a minor league first baseman.
There have been few more auspicious debuts than Karl Spooner's. In his first game with the Dodgers, in September of 1954, the lefthanded Spooner, 23, shut out the Giants on three hits and struck out 15. In his next appearance, on the final day of the season, he shut out the Pirates and struck out 12. He hurt his arm the next spring and lasted but one more year in the majors.
The two most notable sore arms in baseball history belonged to earlier heroes. In 1912 Smokey Joe Wood had a season that stands comparison with the best of Matty's, the Big Train's or anyone else's. Wood won 34 that year and lost five. He struck out 258 batters in 344 innings, had 10 shutouts, completed 35 of 38 starts, had an earned run average of 1.91 and stopped a Walter Johnson 16-game winning streak. That 1-0 victory was the 14th in a Wood winning streak that also eventually reached 16. Asked to compare his fastball to Smokey Joe's, Johnson replied, "Listen, my friend, there's no man alive can throw harder than Smokey Joe Wood." In the World Series that year Wood beat the Giants three times, defeating Christy Mathewson in the last game.
Wood recalled this transcendent season in Lawrence S. Ritter's The Glory of Their Times: "So there I was after the 1912 season—including the World Series, I'd won 37 games and lost only six, struck out 279 men in days when the boys didn't strike out much and I'd beaten Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson one after the other. And do you know how old I was? Well, I was 23 years old, that's all. The brightest future ahead of me that anybody could imagine in their wildest dreams. And do you know something else? That was it. That was it, right then and there. My arm went bad the next year, and all my dreams came tumbling down around my ears like a damn house of cards. The next five years, seems like it was nothing but one long terrible nightmare."
Wood fell fielding a ground ball in the spring of 1913 and fractured the thumb on his pitching hand. His hand was in a cast for several weeks, and he apparently tried to pitch too soon after it was removed, for he instantly felt "a terrific amount of pain in my right shoulder." He visited "hundreds of doctors" over the next three years, but his arm never came back. After trying to pitch, he said, "I couldn't lift my arm as high as my belt. Had to use my left hand to put my right into my coat pocket. And if I'd go to a movie in the evening, I couldn't get my right arm up high enough to put it on the armrest." Wood retired from baseball in 1916, at the age of 27, and then came back the following year as an outfielder and utility man, going hitless in 10 games. He quit for good in 1922, a courageous, ill-fated figure, destined at 33 to be regarded as a relic. "I'd hear fathers tell their kids, 'See that guy over there? That's Smokey Joe Wood. Used to be a great pitcher long time ago.' "
Dizzy Dean was 26 when he started for the National League in the 1937 All-Star Game. In his first five full major league seasons, Dean had won 18, 20, 30, 28 and 24 games for the Cardinals. He had struck out 17 batters in a game and had beaten Detroit twice in the 1934 Series. His '34 season was nearly the equal of Wood's in 1912. He was 30-7, with an earned run average of 2.66 and a league-leading strikeout total of 195. By 1937 he was the game's most flamboyant personality, a hillbilly braggadocio who made good on his most preposterous boasts, a Country and Western singer, a practical joker and, with it all, a young man of considerable charm.
Dean challenged the hitters, strength to strength, his fastball against their power. In the first inning of the '37 All-Star Game, he had won the challenge against the mighty Lou Gehrig, striking him out swinging. In the third, he lost. Gehrig drove one of Dean's fastballs over the rightfield fence for a two-run homer. Anxious to erase this embarrassment with another strikeout, Dean challenged the next hitter, Earl Averill of Cleveland, with his "high hard one." Baseball would have been the better had Averill also hit a homer. Instead, he slugged a vicious liner directly at Dean. The ball struck him on the big toe of his left foot and caromed into the glove of Second Baseman Billy Herman, who threw Averill out to retire the side. His three-inning assignment completed, Dean limped into the dugout, scarcely aware that his brilliant career had effectively ended.
Even so minor an injury as a broken toe requires time to heal, but Dean—and, it would seem, his employers—refused to take it seriously. With splints on his foot and wearing an oversized Chaplinesque shoe, Dean was back in action in two weeks. He was a comic figure, but a tragic one, too. "I ain't able to ease up a minute," he said years later in explaining what happened in his first game back. "Bein' a righthander, I come down with all my weight on my left leg, and every pitch is killin' me. Pain is stabbin' clean up to my hip. Because of this, I change my natural style and don't follow through with my body, so's I don't have to tromp down on my hurt foot. Instead, I cut a fast one loose jes' throwin' with my arm. As the ball left my hand, there was a loud crack in my shoulder, and my arm went numb down to my fingers. Nobody knowed it then, but Ol' Diz' great arm was never goin' to be the same again after that one pitch."