In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.
One of the first to use television to his team’s sign-stealing advantage was the Giants’ old sign-stealer, Herman Franks, when he managed the Cubs in 1977. Franks, temporarily barred from the dugout after being suspended for a particularly animated argument with an umpire, decided to watch the game from the WGN television truck outside the ballpark. It was at that moment, as he looked at a bank of monitors handling feeds from multiple cameras, that he truly understood the sign-stealing potential of TV. Franks called the dugout and spoke with his most trusted coach, Harry Lowrey, known as “Peanuts”—himself an aficionado of the sign-thievery arts—and quickly set up a system. Franks was to pass along the information he gathered from the TV truck to Lowery, who would then relay it to the hitter. But there were two flaws to the plan.
One was that Lowrey, involved with major league baseball for 35 years and a voracious sign decoder, was 60 years old and slowly losing his hearing. The other was that the terminology Franks used to quickly communicate the catcher’s signs—he simply called out the number of fingers dropped on any given pitch—was the same as the terminology used by Arne Harris, the television producer sitting next to Franks, to communicate with the broadcast’s three-man camera crew. “One!” shouted Franks into the phone to Lowery. “Three!” “Two!” As Franks increased his volume to compensate for Lowrey’s hearing deficiency, Harris was forced to get louder as well, just to compete. Soon, the two were in an unrelated shouting match, the entire vocabulary of which consisted of the repeated recitation of small numbers.
It would be the first and last day of Franks’ experiment.