Pitch of a lifetime: Dr. Langston Holly threw out the first ball on Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium

The UCLA Health neurosurgeon marked the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s landmark debut

Neurosurgeon Langston Holly, MD, is as comfortable with a baseball in his hand as he is with a scalpel.

His love of baseball, and of the Los Angeles Dodgers, runs deep. Dr. Holly grew up a Dodgers fan in Los Angeles, where he played baseball throughout his childhood. His Little League team was the Dodgers, with the same blue-and-white colors as the pros.

His favorite player? Jackie Robinson: a Dodger, a multisport athlete, a UCLA Bruin and a civil rights icon. Dr. Holly remembers selling his Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays baseball cards as a kid to scrape together enough money to buy a Jackie Robinson card, which to this day he still keeps double-sheathed in plastic at his parents’ house.

So when leaders of UCLA Health and the Los Angeles Dodgers invited Dr. Holly to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium on Jackie Robinson Day, Friday, April 15 — the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s groundbreaking Major League Baseball debut — the surgeon was overwhelmed.

But nerves didn’t prevent Dr. Holly from sailing that pitch on the fly right into the catcher's mitt.

“It’s just an amazing night,” he said after the toss. “Even if I hadn’t gotten it there, it still would have been an awesome night. I just feel so blessed to be here.”

Raised on baseball

As a child, Dr. Langston Holly sold his Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays baseball cards to purchase a Jackson Robinson card that he still has at his parents' home. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Langston Holly)

When a young Langston Holly was growing up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, “every boy played baseball,” he says. It wasn’t just Little League. It was playing with friends at the park, throwing the ball in the backyard with dad, playing catch with the neighborhood kids after school.

“We played Three Flies Up. We played Over the Line. We played Pickle. We played catch. We took batting practice. We played home run derby,” Dr. Holly says. “We played every game you can imagine with a baseball and a baseball bat.”

Dr. Holly and his younger brother, Marty, spent countless hours at Gardner Park (now Pan Pacific Park) in mid-city Los Angeles. “We, far and away, had the farthest home-run fence,” Dr. Holly recalls with a smile. “Anybody who visited our field, they just couldn’t believe it.”

As a young kid, about 8 years old, he attended his first baseball camp — a sleep-away camp led by former Dodger infielder Ken McMullen. Dodger players would often stop by to visit. The year Dr. Holly was there, pitcher Tommy John was the special guest; the two took a picture together.

“This was in the ‘70s, not too long after he had recovered from his Tommy John surgery (reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament in his arm),” Dr. Holly says. “To meet any player is great, right? But to meet somebody who was at the top of their game, who had just had this famous surgery that was done for the first time, and then to have a picture with him — that was just unbelievable. You can see in the photo, I look like a happy little guy, and I was, because it was just such a unique experience to meet him.”

Aside from meeting his idols, what Dr. Holly really loved about baseball was the camaraderie with his fellow players.

Baseball is unique, he says, because players spend half the game on the field and the other half together in the dugout, chewing sunflower seeds, chatting and connecting.

“I think it was such a key part of my development as a person in general,” he says.

Admiring Jackie Robinson

Dr. Langston Holly recalls playing on youth league teams as a child growing up in L.A. One team was the Dodgers and they wore the same blue and white colors as his favorite pro ball club. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Langston Holly)

It wasn’t just a love of baseball that made young Dr. Holly a fan of Jackie Robinson. It was Robinson’s role as a civil rights pioneer.

After excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track while a student at UCLA, Robinson spent two years in the U.S. Army and played a season of professional baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. In 1947, Robinson was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first Black athlete to play in the Major Leagues since American baseball was segregated in 1889.

Dr. Holly’s parents grew up in the segregated South, so from a young age, he understood how much Robinson’s courage meant to them and the civil rights movement.

“When my parents were growing up in the ‘40s, that's when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, in 1947,” Dr. Holly says. “Just understanding how important Jackie Robinson was to them growing up and how much pride that gave them, that was something that I really was able to appreciate.

“I had a lot of knowledge of him through my parents,” he continued. “What people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson did was not just for Black people. It was for everybody, because diversity makes our country what it is.”

As a baseball-obsessed kid, he read books about Robinson and his admiration grew.

“One of the ways in which I could show my fondness and appreciation for Jackie Robinson was by trying to get one of his baseball cards,” Dr. Holly says. “But Jackie Robinsons don’t grow on trees.”

He spent his whole childhood collecting baseball cards, one pack (and accompanying stick of gum) at a time. But by the time he started collecting in the 1970s, Robinson was long retired, and people who had Jackie Robinson cards didn’t give them up easily. Dr. Holly built his collection to include cards of a few other prize players, which he sold to get the money to buy a 1954 Jackie Robinson card.

“I must have been about 10 years old,” Dr. Holly says. “To this day, it’s still my prized possession of my baseball card collection.”

Even as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, Dr. Holly had a poster of Robinson on his dorm room wall.

Becoming a brain surgeon

As an athlete, Dr. Holly was always interested in the human body. As a student, he loved science. So, like his father, he pursued a career in medicine.

When he was 8, Langston Holly got to meet Dodgers pitcher Tommy John at a baseball camp. “To meet any player is great, right? But to meet somebody who was at the top of their game, who had just had this famous surgery that was done for the first time, and then to have a picture with him — that was just unbelievable,” he says. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Langston Holly)

“I knew I wanted to be a surgeon,” he says. “I enjoy working with my hands. I felt there was a special connection between the surgeon and patient that you don’t get in the non-surgical fields.”

He attended the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and did his residency at UCLA, too. He figured he’d go into orthopedics because of his connection to sports, but once he started doing rotations, he found he was fascinated with the brain.

“I remember scrubbing into a surgery at 7:30 in the morning, a neurosurgery, and all of a sudden I looked up, and it’s 4 p.m. I just couldn't believe that the day had already passed,” Dr. Holly says. “I said to myself, ‘This is an awesome way to spend a day.’”

Dr. Holly is now co-director of the UCLA Spine Center in Santa Monica, where he does a variety of operations, from intense, physical surgeries that involve realigning the spine and inserting screws to very fine microsurgeries on the spinal cord.

“I still do some brain surgery, but mostly spine,” says Dr. Holly, also executive vice chair of the department of neurosurgery. “There are orthopedic spine surgeons, and neurosurgeons who perform spine surgery, and a lot of times we work very closely together. So I ended up in a field that was a little bit of a combination of what I thought I was going to do originally.

“Similar to my experience with this Jackie Robinson Day, oftentimes you come back to your roots in some way as you go through your journey.”

Taking the field at Dodger Stadium

When Dr. Holly stepped onto the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium on Jackie Robinson Day, he said he was representing more than UCLA Health, where he’s been for 31 years. He also was representing his parents’ admiration of Robinson’s integrity during a time when segregation was the norm. He was representing Robinson’s legacy and contributions to American culture and society. He was representing his Los Angeles hometown and his hometown Dodgers.

And he was representing all the kids he played baseball with in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“I feel like I’m representing the guys from Gardner Park,” says Dr. Holly, who reunited with many of those childhood teammates at a Little League reunion in 2021. “The kids that had holes in their baseball pants, had gloves that they borrowed from their older brothers, that didn’t have that much, but were able to make it.”

That’s a lot of pressure riding on one pitch. But he was feeling confident leading up to the big night.

“I’ve probably thrown hundreds of thousands of baseballs in my life, and I actually pitched when I was growing up,” Dr. Holly said prior to his Dodger Stadium appearance. “I started throwing a few practice pitches the other day, and I hadn’t thrown a baseball in a little while. But it felt like I’d been holding it every day."

After warming up on Friday night, Dr. Holly knew he was ready for an unforgettable moment.

“Arm’s feeling pretty good. ... I’m ready to go,” he said before the pitch. “The game plan is to get it there nice and easy.”

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