Did Tommy John Really Once Make Three Errors on the Same Play?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the baseball urban legends featured so far.

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Tommy John once made three errors on a single play.

Tommy John might be the only baseball player who is known better for a surgery performed on him than his actual career, which is a darn shame, because John had a very good career – he has the sixth-most victories of any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame (“just” 11 shy of 300 – the quotes is because it was remarkable he stuck around long enough to get the 288 in the first place!).

Still, Tommy John is best known for an injury he suffered in the middle of the 1974 season while pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers (for whom he was 13-3 on the year).

John tore a ligament in his throwing elbow. Such an injury (which is fairly common in pitchers, as the stress of throwing pitches is quite taxing on the elbow ligaments) would essentially ruin a pitcher’s career. However, in John’s case, a surgery was performed taking a tendon from John’s right forearm and using it to replace the damaged ligament in his elbow. After skipping the 1975 season to rehab the arm, John was back in 1976 pitching as usual.

He went on to make the All-Star Team three more times (he also had made the All-Star Team in 1968 when with the Chicago White Sox).

John spent most of his later years in the Majors (he ended up winning more games AFTER the surgery than he did BEFORE) pitching for the New York Yankees.

John pitched for the Yankees until 1989, when he had clearly lost it, at a remarkable 46 years of age. Just the fact that he was a capable pitcher for the Yankees in the mid-to-late 80s is remarkable for a pitcher in his mid-40s.

However, the story we’re discussing today is when John had a slightly less capable moment on the diamond.

John induced a number of ground ball outs, and as a result (or perhaps as a necessity) he was a good fielding pitcher.

But in a game in New York against the Milwaukee Brewers in late July of 1988, John had one of the most ignominious moments in baseball history.

Leading 4-0 in the top of the fourth inning, John got a groundout to start the inning. He then walked the next batter, Jim Gantner.

The next batter, Jeffrey Leonard, hit a ground ball to John that began a serious comedy of errors.

John bobbled the ball, allowing Leonard to reach first base.

But John then compounded the error by throwing the ball wildly past first base into right field. Gantner was rounding third base and coming in to score ahead of the throw in from the rightfielder, Dave Winfield, with Leonard advancing to third base. John then compounded it even FURTHER by catching the relay throw by Winfield (John was the cutoff man) and promptly firing it wildly past the catcher, allowing Leonard to come home and score, as well.

So on one single ground ball, John managed to make THREE separate errors leading to TWO unearned runs scoring (including the batter who hit the grounder)!!

The event tied a Major League Record for most errors by a pitcher in an inning, and almost certainly was the most errors a pitcher ever committed on a single play!

However, John had some solace – he won the game, as the Yankees went on to beat the Brewers badly, maintaining the Yankee hold on first place in the American League Eastern Division (the last time that year that the Yankees were in first place – perhaps the errors were trying to tell them something?).

The legend is…

STATUS: True

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2 Responses to “Did Tommy John Really Once Make Three Errors on the Same Play?”

  1. To be pedantic, John actually has the sixth-most wins of any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame, but the five ahead of him either aren’t yet eligible, pitched in the 19th century, or were linked to steroids.

  2. Thanks, Danny, I fixed it!

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