Thankfully, Rose and other modern athletes now have at their disposal a ton of sophisticated medical procedures and medications to help the body heal, from physical therapy and acupuncture to cortisone injections and advanced surgeries. Professionals—whose livelihood depends on proper functioning arms and legs—will even spend thousands and thousands of dollars on remedies that have not yet passed clinical trials, like the injectable anti-inflammatory drug Toradol or biologics, in which the “patient's own tissues are extracted, carefully manipulated, and then reintroduced to the body.” There are obvious risks in stepping back onto the field or court after undergoing experimental treatments—just ask the owners of drugged thoroughbreds. But with the biological clock ticking, the more options available, the better.
Dr. George Bennett, a sports medicine pioneer, would be thrilled to see these innovations. Born in the Catskill Mountains in 1885, Bennett was himself a solid baseball player, landing a roster spot on a local semi-pro team by the age of 16. (Friends later described him as a “rather undisciplined little tough guy.”) But medicine was Bennett’s true passion. After high school, he worked a series of odd jobs throughout the Midwest, stashing away his earnings to pay for medical school tuition. Bennett eventually matriculated at the University of Maryland, graduated in 1908, and landed a job at the Johns Hopkins Hospital two years later. He was 25.
It was an interesting time for a sports fan to enter the field, such as it was. “Sports medicine,” as we understand it today, was in no way a recognized discipline. In the locker room, “it was considered effete and unnecessary to have a doctor in attendance” (Washington Post; March 10, 1962), and trainers—most of whom had no science background—applied the lion’s share of treatments, which often meant rubbing sore muscles with balms. At the same time, doctors were starting to use x-rays with more regularity, producing detailed images of the body without having to penetrate the skin physically. If an entrepreneurial physician studied how the athlete’s body works and used that knowledge to create procedures that sped up recovery times, he could give daring ballplayers a competitive advantage while making a tidy profit for himself.
So Bennett poured over x-rays, starting with baseball pitchers. And what he found was troubling. While baseball players were subject to the same disabilities of the average laborer, repeating the overhand throwing motion over and over did increase by a wide margin the frequency of degenerative joint injuries. The ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the human arm are just not designed to exert the pressure necessary to propel a baseball 60 feet at rapid speeds, much less make it curve in flight. "Pitching,” Bennett would famously say, “is a most unnatural motion.”
Bennett penned an article in the American Physical Education Review in 1925 laying out the case in plan details that pitching can create long-term structural damage. He followed that piece up with another influential article in 1941, titled “Shoulder and Elbow Lesions of the Professional Baseball Pitcher,” that included x-ray photos and a controversial suggestion that pitchers should use the side-arm delivery (like Walter Johnson) to lengthen their careers. It seems obvious now, but the conclusion was revelatory at the time; pitcher workloads didn’t begin to drop dramatically until the mid-1920s, after Bennett’s first paper was published.
While he studied joints in the lab, Bennett simultaneously built a successful practice, which he would leave Johns Hopkins to run full-time in 1947. Over time, the doctor garnered what sports columnist Red Smith called “the enviable and deserved reputation for remantling athletes” (Baltimore Sun; May 28, 1950). Famous ballplayers liked him for a number of reasons: he was clearly bright, he took sports seriously, and he was not afraid to take orthopedic chances if his client requested it of him. Most importantly, he kept his mouth shut; an AP reporter once joked that the only two words the humble Bennett ever said in public were “operation successful.”
Over the course of his career, Bennett opened up stars like Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Pee Wee Reese, and Johnny Unitas.* (Clark Cable and Lord Halifax sought out his counsel, too.) With the help of a colleague at Hopkins, he also invented the first batting helmet, a hat designed with a specialty zipper pocket that held two hard plastic slabs. And once in a while, he worked miracles.
The career of Roy Sievers (pictured above) is an instructive example. A hulking left fielder, Sievers won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1949, hitting .306 and slugging 16 home runs for the St. Louis Browns. But in 1951, after struggling during his sophomore season, he broke his right collarbone diving for a ball in the outfield. The next spring, he dislocated the same shoulder making a throw across the diamond. His career appeared finished. Then Sievers visited Bennett. In what the doctor described as “an experiment,” he drilled a hole in Sievers’ bone, cut his tendons, slipped them through the opening, and knotted them together on the other side to keep the bone from rolling out of the shoulder socket. The procedure drastically limited Sievers’ throwing power, forcing a positional move to first base. While supportive of the initial operation, Browns president Bill Veeck and his colleagues in the front office weren’t convinced he would return to form, so they shuffled him off to Washington in a trade for the unremarkable Gil Coan.
This turned out to be a mammoth mistake; Sievers gradually redeveloped strength in his arm and subsequently took the majors by storm, blasting over 20 home runs in nine straight seasons. His best year came in 1957, when Sievers finished third in the AL MVP race, logging 42 home runs and an on-base plus slugging percentage of .967. According to Bennett, Sievers’ recovery was a “miracle of modern medicine” (Washington Post; September 20, 1957). The Senator agreed; during an awards dinner for Bennett the following year, Sievers came up to the doctor with a tear in his eye and thanked him for saving his career. Red Smith aptly described Bennett’s enduring reputation: “This sort of thing has become such a familiar story—the halt and lame of sports have been shuffling off to Baltimore for so long now and in such numbers—that a newspaper reader might be excused if he got the notion that Dr. Bennett had invented the practice of medicine.”
Bennett died in 1962, so he didn’t get to see the creative surgical work of the doctors who followed in his wake. That includes Frank Jobe, who successfully repaired Tommy Johns’ shoulder and launched a medical revolution. But his impact on sports, and the medical profession more broadly, was undeniable. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might even want to revisit the doctor’s thoughts on football, broadcast in an AP interview on December 18, 1947. “The present helmet is simply equipping a player with armor and the steel mask in front is an open invitation to crush someone’s jaw or knock his teeth out,” he said. “The toll of injuries will continue to mount unless the face mask is legislated out of the game immediately.”
Prescient words from a thoughtful man.
*“After listening to that all-star team of players Dr. Bennett has mended,” Joe Garagiola said at an awards dinner in 1958, “I’m sort of sorry I didn't break my leg."