LOS ANGELES (AP) — Renowned orthopedic surgeon Lewis Yocum, who extended the careers of many big leaguers by repairing injuries that once would’ve ended their playing days, has died. He was 65.
Yocum had been the team orthopedist of the Los Angeles Angels for 36 years. Team spokesman Tim Mead said Tuesday that Yocum died on Saturday in Manhattan Beach.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said. “He’s fixed a lot of guys and done a lot for the game of baseball.”
Yocum had been ill with liver cancer, something that he chose to keep private.
“We totally understood that,” Angels All-Star pitcher Jered Weaver said. “He just wanted to deal with it with his family and didn’t want to have to put that on us. When we heard that he was going through liver cancer, it was tough to hear that. A guy like that only comes around in this world every so often.”
Frank Jobe, a doctor who pioneered the elbow ligament replacement surgery popularly known as Tommy John surgery in 1974, said he last spoke with Yocum a few weeks ago.
“I knew it was serious, but he didn’t want to talk about it,” Jobe said at Dodger Stadium before the Angels played the Dodgers. “It just makes me so sad because he’s not here anymore. It’s not like it was before, when I could ask Lew what he thinks about this or that. I can’t do that anymore.”
Yocum specialized in sports medicine, shoulders, elbows and knees, according to the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic Web site. The Los Angeles clinic was founded by Jobe, who shared the workplace and a close friendship with Yocum for 35 years.
Angels trainer Rick Smith said Yocum told him that his favorite part of the job was doing surgery.
“When he said that he had a twinkle and a gleam in his eye,” Smith said. “He loved fixing elbows or shoulders or ankles or knees. He was a great man and he is irreplaceable. His life was cut way, way too short.”
Not all of Yocum’s patients were highly paid professional athletes; he also operated on everyday people.
“It didn’t matter if you were a weekend golfer or a superstar pitcher,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Dr. Yocum had the same feeling of compassion for you, and I think that’s what made him a special person. He had a presence about him, and our guys had total confidence in anything he told them.”
Yocum, Jobe and James Andrews became the key surgeons for big leaguers.
“They’re just as much a part of the game as the players, keeping us on the field,” Washington manager Davey Johnson said.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig called Yocum “a giant in the field of sports medicine.”
“All of our clubs relied upon Dr. Yocum’s trusted opinion and judgment,” Selig said in a statement. “Throughout the last 36 years, the lives and careers of countless players benefited from his pioneering expertise, and he made our game on the field better as a result.”
Zimmermann and Nationals Stephen Strasburg were among the players operated on by Yocum.
“He’s saved a lot of guys’ careers,” Zimmermann said.
Zimmermann recalled Yocum’s dry sense of humor when the doctor checked him to see if the pitcher had a ligament that was big enough in his wrist.
“Obviously, it wasn’t,” he said. “He told me what to do and his stuck out about a half-inch. I said, ‘Can I just take yours?’ He didn’t smile one bit and said, ‘You don’t know how many times I’ve heard that?’”
Angels starter C.J. Wilson was among dozens of players tweeting reaction to the news of Yocum’s death.
“He was the sole reason a lot of pitchers and I had a chance at a career in baseball,” tweeted Wilson, who signed a $78 million, five-year contract eight years after having Tommy John surgery in 2003.
Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay had consulted with Yocum earlier this month about his injured shoulder.
“There were some players whose elbow or shoulder was trashed, and as brilliant or as great as he was, there wasn’t a whole lot he could do anymore for them,” Smith said. “But he wanted them to know that he wanted them to be able to play catch with their kids and their grandkids.”
The Angels remembered Yocum as “one of baseball’s finest gentlemen and truly outstanding professionals.”
“His talents extended the careers of countless professional athletes, and provided extended quality of life for so many others he advised, treated and operated on during his distinguished career, including 36 years with the Angels,” the team said in a statement.
“His contributions and impact in the medical field will long be remembered across the country. He represents the standard for others in his profession to attain.”
Earlier this month, the Angels named their training room in his honor, with Weaver placing a placard with Yocum’s name above the room’s door in the clubhouse.
Although Yocum never operated on Weaver, the pitcher often talked with him about anything he was feeling.
“He was the one to go to and he always had the right answer,” Weaver said. “It was always about what was in your best interests, and if he didn’t recommend it, he would say it. He was always truthful and honest about all the little nagging injuries that go with trying to get through the course of the season.”
A native of Chicago, Yocum earned his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University in 1969 and a doctorate from the University of Illinois in 1973. He served his surgery internship and residency in orthopedic surgery at Northwestern University. He served his fellowship in sports medicine at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in 1977.
“We kept him another year because he was so good,” Jobe said. “What impressed me about him was the same thing as now. He was just a good person, honest, and he had no personal agenda. He just wanted to take good care of his patients and do the right thing.”
Jobe credited Yocum with extending as many players’ careers as he did via Tommy John surgery, named for the Dodgers pitcher who was the first to undergo the procedure.
“His legacy will be doing the right thing at the right time, taking good care of his patients, and being a real good friend,” Jobe said. “He’s respected by everybody.”
Yocum was just the second doctor to be inducted as an honorary member of the Professional Baseball Trainers Society in 2008.
He is survived by his wife, Beth; son Donald; and daughter Laura.
AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.