Tommy John Jr., the famed baseball player and elbow surgery pioneer, has contracted COVID-19. But even as he receives oxygen while battling a case of the deadly disease, the Hall of Fame candidate and his chiropractor son are spouting anti-vaxxer views.
From his hospital bed near his home in Indio, California, the 77-year-old former Yankees pitcher told The Daily Beast he was experiencing no symptoms at all after being diagnosed during a hospitalization for a recent fall. “I’d leave right now if they’d let me walk out,” he said on Tuesday.
Later, asked if the diagnosis made him nervous about his health, he responded: “You gotta be shitting me.”
"You’re either going to live or you’re going to die,” he added.
It was perhaps a predictable response from the curveball king, who returned to pitch for 14 seasons after receiving a then-nascent ligament replacement surgery in 1974. But it was also, according to his longtime girlfriend Cheryl Zeldin, not the whole story.
As Zeldin tells it, she and John were on a trip to Nashville in early December when the former All Star suddenly lost motor control. Returning to the hotel for dinner that night, she said, he could barely get out of the car. He needed multiple people to help him out of the plane when they returned to California the next day, she added.
On Dec. 13, the day after they got back, he was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
John has been hospitalized twice more since then, according to Zeldin: Once, shortly after the first incident, when his oxygen saturation dipped dangerously low, and a third time in late December, when he was too lethargic to get up and walk. She has not been able to see him since, she said.
Confronted with this conflicting narrative, John admitted that he had been placed on oxygen—that he was, in fact, currently on oxygen—but that he hadn’t mentioned it earlier because he didn’t think he actually needed it. (“These people here would put you on anything!” he exclaimed.) He also confirmed being hospitalized multiple times, though he said he couldn’t be certain his symptoms were COVID-related. He also accused this reporter of “making a mountain out of a molehill” before hanging up the phone.
John’s blasé stance toward the virus is perhaps unsurprising given the sentiment of his eldest son, Tommy John III, a chiropractor in San Diego with a prolific Facebook presence. On his two Facebook pages, one of which refers to him as “Dr. Tommy John,” the 43-year-old spews conspiracy theories claiming the virus does not exist and that the entire pandemic was orchestrated by an anonymous “they.”
John III recently posted a video of himself writing a prescription to “the global population” to “stop masking your kids!” (Chiropractors cannot legally prescribe medication in the U.S.) And don’t even get him started on vaccines.
“Germs don’t cause disease. Vaccines don’t eradicate anything but healthy children,” the younger John wrote, falsely, on Jan. 3, in between “spinal hygiene” videos and recipes for bacon fat-roasted vegetables. “And this scenario is much worse than an actual pandemic. Prepare.” (The vaccines targeted at the coronavirus have proven extremely safe and effective in clinical trials.)
On Dec. 30, two weeks after his father was hospitalized, the chiropractor declared that COVID-19 was just an “idea” that “does not exist from any virus.”
“You do not have Covid 19. Never did. Stop giving it permission and power by acting like it’s a real thing,” he wrote.
The younger John did not respond to calls, texts, and emails seeking comment.
The elder John, at least, does not seem to suffer from the illusion that the virus he’s infected with does not exist. But he does seem to share some of his son’s anti-vaccine sentiments.
Asked whether he would be vaccinated, the elder John said he was “not a vaccine type person,” and “not going to get a vaccine.” (Around this time, seeming increasingly frustrated, he also asked this reporter if she was a blonde. She considers herself more of a light brunette.)
“The last time I was vaccinated was when I was like 8 years old. Does that make me bad?” John asked.
Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, said celebrities and sports stars have limited roles to play at this phase of the vaccine rollout. The conspiracy-laden ranting of his son, who posits himself as a health expert, could be more poisonous right now, Omer predicted.
But eventually, public figures like John will have a role to play in normalizing vaccination for the general population.
“We will get to a point where our strategy will have to shift from trust to [establishing a] social norm,” Omer said. “At that point... having role models endorsing the vaccine is helpful.”
By that juncture, however, John may very well have already been vaccinated—at least if his girlfriend has anything to do with it.
"He’s getting it, trust me,” said Zeldin, who was diagnosed with the virus around the same time as John.
Later, referring to his son, she says she told him: "We’re not going to tell Tommy you’re getting it, but you’re getting it.”