Herman Franks, who managed the San Francisco Giants to four consecutive second-place finishes in the 1960s but who was also remembered in connection with an elaborate sign-stealing scheme during the Giants’ dramatic 1951 pennant victory in their Polo Grounds years, died Monday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 95.Ernie Sisto/The New York Times
Herman Franks in 1965, his first year managing the Giants.
His death was announced by his family.
In a baseball career going back to the early 1930s, Franks was a major league catcher, a coach and manager with the Giants, a manager and general manager with the Chicago Cubs, and a scout.
“Is finishing second so evil?” The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Franks as asking when he resigned as the Giants’ manager after the 1968 season, having taken San Francisco to the No. 2 spot in two tight National League pennant races won by the Los Angeles Dodgers and in two runaways won by the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 1951, the New York Giants seemed destined to finished second behind the Brooklyn Dodgers, trailing them by 13 ½ games in mid-August. But they won the pennant in a playoff on Bobby Thomson’s three-run, ninth-inning homer off Ralph Branca.
Franks was a Giants coach that season, but he was in the center-field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds when Thomson connected. He never explained exactly what he was doing there at that moment. But Giants teammates said long afterward that, at the behest of Manager Leo Durocher, Franks was using a telescope that afternoon (and in the weeks preceding it) to steal the signs of opposing catchers so that Giants batters would know what pitch was coming.
Details of the operation were related by the sports columnist Dave Anderson of The New York Times, in his book “Pennant Races” (Doubleday, 1994), and by Joshua Prager in The Wall Street Journal in 2001 and in his book “The Echoing Green” (Pantheon, 2006).
After watching the opposing catcher wiggle his fingers, Franks was said to have had an electrician alongside him activate a buzzer in the Giants’ bullpen in right-center field, one buzz for a fastball and two for a curveball. Sal Yvars, a reserve catcher in the bullpen, would listen for the buzzes. If Yvars held on to a baseball, the Giants batter glancing at him knew a fastball was coming. If Yvars tossed a ball in the air, it meant a curve could be expected.
Yvars said years later that he flashed the tip-off for a fastball, as correctly predicted by Franks, just before Branca delivered his home-run pitch to Thomson. But Thomson told Prager that he had been concentrating so heavily that he had not looked at Yvars.
Herman Louis Franks, a native of Price, Utah, grew up in Salt Lake City. He made his major league debut with the Cardinals in 1939, played for Durocher’s pennant-winning Dodgers in 1941, for the Philadelphia Athletics and, in one game, with the Giants. He had a .199 career batting average as a backup over six seasons.
Franks managed the future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry as the Giants’ manager in San Francisco. He managed the Cubs from 1977 to 1979 and was their general manager in 1981.
Franks is survived by his wife, Ami; his sons Herman Jr. and Dan, and a daughter, Cynthia Wright, all of Salt Lake City; and seven grandchildren.
The controversy over the Giants’ sign-stealing and its presumed impact on perhaps the most dramatic pennant race in baseball history lingered long after the summer of 1951. But Franks was not eager to have the last word.
“I haven’t talked about it in 49 years,” he told The Associated Press in 2001. “If I’m ever asked about it, I’m denying everything.”