#CardCorner: 1968 Topps Herman Franks
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The Franks card is one of the more intriguing selections to be found in the 1968 set. I’ve become a big fan of ’68 Topps, mostly because I like the distinctive speckled border that the company introduced that spring and summer. The speckled border is unusual but attractive; for some reason, the nature of the border gives the cards some three-dimensionality. I also like the colored circle that Topps showcases in the lower right-hand corner of the card. Thanks to the splash of color, the speckled borders, and the generally solid photography, 1968 Topps remains an appealing set that is attractive to collectors.
The Hall of Fame’s collection features the complete set of 1968 Topps, which always gives me a good reason to venture into the basement and check out the binders containing these wonderful cards. In turn, the discovery of these cards give me a good excuse to do some research and learn more about the players – and the managers – from this time period.
The back of the Franks card gives us a nice bonus, too. Rather than simply show us Franks’ managerial won-loss record (which can be a pretty dry summary of a manager’s career), the reverse contains a well-written biography of the player-turned manager. (The back’s color scheme of white and yellow makes the bio easy to read, too.) If you knew nothing about Franks prior to picking up this card, you would come away with a good snapshot of a man who was clearly a dedicated baseball lifer.
As a ballplayer, Franks put in time as a backup catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers. His career appeared to end in 1941, not so coincidentally with the start of World War II. But five years later, after his discharge from the Army, he made a comeback with the Montreal Royals, where his teammates included a young Jackie Robinson. Franks played the entire season as the Royals catcher and put up an excellent year, hitting .280 with 14 home runs.
After a stint as player/manager with the St. Paul Saints, Franks returned to the major leagues with the Philadelphia A’s, beginning the second phase of his career. That phase lasted parts of three seasons with the A’s and New York Giants, before finally ending in 1949. With the Giants, Franks became a player/coach; he was personally recruited by manager Leo Durocher, who wanted Franks to work with the Giants’ young pitchers. For the better part of the next decade, Franks coached and scouted for the Giants, maintaining a strong relationship as one of Durocher’s lieutenants.
The most famous incident of Franks’ coaching career occurred during the 1951 season, when the Giants rallied from 13-and-a-half games back to force a three-game playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Franks spent at least part of the final game of that playoff – the famed Bobby Thomson game – in the Giants’ clubhouse, which was located in center field. Publicly, Franks never admitted to what he was doing in the clubhouse, but several of his teammates claimed that he had been positioned there by Durocher. Armed with a telescope, Franks allegedly stole the signs of the Dodgers’ pitchers and then relayed them to Giants catcher Sal Yvars through a buzzer system.
Remaining with Durocher for the rest of his Giants tenure, Franks retained his coaching position under new manager Bill Rigney. Franks stayed on as a coach for one season, but ultimately Rigney wanted his own coaches. That was no problem for Franks, who was already starting to experience success in private business, largely through his real estate holdings. Some writers speculated that Franks was worth at least $1 million, which was simply unheard of for an ex-ballplayer in the 1950s.
In 1970, Franks happened to be in Chicago meeting with Mays, who was in town for a series with the Cubs. Chicago pitching coach Joe Becker suffered a heart attack, leading him to be hospitalized, and eventually forcing him to retire from coaching. By now the manager of the Cubs, Leo Durocher contacted Franks about the possibility of stepping in as the team’s interim pitching coach. After meeting with his good friend, Franks decided to take the job, serving in that role through the end of the season.
Once again leaving the game, Franks remained on the sidelines for the next six seasons – until someone else came calling. After the 1976 season, the Cubs’ director of baseball operations, Bob Kennedy, fired manager Jim Marshall. Having known Franks from his days as a manager in Salt Lake, Kennedy contacted Franks about the Cubs’ managerial vacancy. The two men sat down and considered the possibility, with Franks deciding to take the job.
The Chicago media met the announcement with skepticism. They took note of Franks’ age; he was 63, making him the oldest manager in the game. They also wondered whether Franks, who was independently wealthy from his business dealings, really wanted to manage. Some of the writers also criticized Franks for his handling of the media while with the Giants. Franks had a reputation for snapping at writers, especially those who questioned his decisions.
Franks didn’t care about the various criticisms. He said he had two goals, to win a lot of games, and to win a pennant before he retired. Taking over a sub-.500 Cubs team that had won only 75 games in 1976, Franks did well, leading the club to a six-game improvement. The Cubs played respectably, going 81-81 and proving that Franks could still manage major leaguers. With his pot-bellied figure and his tendency to engage in epic arguments with umpires, the cigar-chomping Franks became a colorful figure in the Windy City.
In the spring of 1978, Franks showed himself to be more than capable of having fun on the job. After a Spring Training workout, the Cubs made their way into the clubhouse, where Franks took the hairpiece from Cubs third baseman Steve Ontiveros and placed it on top of his own head. (Franks himself was bald, too.) A Chicago Tribune photographer captured the surreal moment on film.
For many ex-ballplayers and managers, life can be a struggle after baseball. But for Herman Franks, that was not the case. He found as much success outside of the game as he did inside the lines. He also brought some color to the game, with his cigars, his round belly, and a pair of dark sunglasses that would have made Dirty Harry proud.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum