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Photo of the Week: Tommy John’s last hurrah

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The should-be Hall-of-Famer had his most productive years on the South Side

Last Run in ‘71: Tommy John delivers a pitch during a spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles in Miami.
Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

There’s a whole lot that people don’t know about Tommy John.

Let’s start with the obvious: John should be in the Hall of Fame.

His career WAR averaged across Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus (and accounting for lost games due to labor unrest in 1972 and 1981) is an astronomical 83.6. That puts John in the direct company of pitching luminaries such as Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina and Robin Roberts. Among position players, that WAR puts him in the company of Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Bagwell, Pete Rose and Joe DiMaggio.

It goes without saying that John’s career output dwarfs dozens of players already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and he outpaces the entire 2018 class of Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero, Alan Trammell and [cough] Jack Morris.

Another thing easily overlooked about John: His most productive years were with the White Sox.

John played on the South Side for seven seasons, from 1965 to 1971. It was in Chicago he became a full-time starting pitcher, and went on to average 3.4 WAR per season in his White Sox career. John starred for the White Sox during their reversion to Hitless Wonders in the late 1960s, leading the American League in shutouts in two straight seasons (1966, with five, and 1967, with six).

But John was never a sexy pitcher. Aside from a few years leading the league in shutouts, and back-to-back seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers leading the NL in winning percentage, John never stood out as a statistical star.

The measure of a starting pitcher entering the Hall, antiquated or not, is 300 wins. John finished his 612-game career with 288 wins. That’s still 26th all-time.

Not good enough, sez the BBWAA, who in its infinite wisdom granted John his greatest support for the Hall of Fame in 2009, his final season on the ballot: 31.7% of the vote.

To address only the numbers ignores the pivotal, if somewhat incidental, role John has played in pitching culture over the past four decades — the ligament-transplant surgery that bears his name. John’s “Tommy John surgery” caused him to miss his age-32 season in 1975. For a guy who would go on to pitch just past his 46th birthday, it’s safe to say that his lost campaign qualifies as a “prime” season erased from his career.

But, back to the White Sox. John had arguably his weakest season in a Sox uniform in 1971 (13-16, with a 3.61 ERA), which landed him on the trading block. On Dec. 2, 1971, fresh-faced Chicago GM Roland Hemond swapped John and Steve Huntz to the Dodgers for DIck Allen.

While John would pitch in 19 more seasons and earn some 38 additional WAR, it has been argued that the acquisition of Allen helped save the White Sox (for one, Bud Selig had a handshake deal to relocate the team to Milwaukee that was kiboshed by AL owners). Allen was the AL MVP in 1972, and injected success and excitement into a team that had just suffered the worst stretch in its history (295 losses from 1968-70).

In the photo, John is laboring at the beginning of his last season as a White Sox, winding up against a Miami Stadium light tower backdrop made heat-hazy by the camera lens. Just three seasons later, he would have a stellar 13-3, 2.59 ERA season with the Dodgers cut short by the injury necessitating what would eventually become his namesake surgery.

Look at John, wearing the countenance of a pitcher who would complete 162 games — a full season’s worth, yeah — in his career.

A badass like Tommy John should have a plaque in Cooperstown.