Jack Franzi, aka “Pittsburgh Jack” and “Uncle Jack,” was one of the most respected and successful sports bettors of his time.
The old-school wiseguy also was one of the most influential oddsmakers in Las Vegas history.
“He came to Las Vegas when sports gambling was in its infancy and really helped set the groundwork,” said Art Manteris, Station Casinos sportsbook vice president and Franzi’s nephew. “Jack was very old-school but his analytical ability internally, in my mind, was really second to none.
“In today’s world, there’s a lot of analytics that goes on with artificial intelligence, data gathering, computer gambling and so forth. But Jack was incredible at doing all of that internally before the computer age.”
Franzi — the oddsmaker at Michael Gaughan’s Barbary Coast and Gold Coast from 1979 to 1997 — died of natural causes June 10 surrounded by his family at age 91.
He was laid to rest Wednesday and leaves behind an impressive sports betting tree that includes Manteris; nephew Chris Andrews, South Point sportsbook director; and son Zach, Mesquite Gaming sportsbook director.
“You look around town and there are so many of us that trace back to Uncle Jack,” said Andrews, who dedicated his new book, “Then One Day … 40 Years of Bookmaking in Nevada,” to his beloved uncle. “He was always a bettor. He wasn’t really a bookmaker. He essentially made his money throughout his life by betting.
“He lived his life exactly as he wanted to and not a lot of us get to do that.”
Jack Franzi worked alongside venerable oddsmaker and fellow Pittsburgh native Jimmy Vaccaro at the Barbary Coast. He also influenced the careers of Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director and VSiN host Vinny Magliulo and Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito.
“When certain people speak, people listen,” said Magliulo, who began his career as a dice dealer at the Barbary Coast. “When Jack bet, numbers moved.”
Esposito’s family was friends with Franzi’s family and as a youngster Esposito would talk sports with Uncle Jack whenever he could.
“If my parents wanted me to go to a party or event, they’d just say ‘Uncle Jack’s gonna be there’ and I instantly said, ‘I’m in,’” Esposito said. “I loved Uncle Jack. He was a great guy, he was a pioneer in the sports gaming industry and he was extremely influential in helping get my career started.”
Two of Franzi’s closest friends were legendary Las Vegas bookmaker Bob Martin and oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. Manteris said Snyder often consulted with Franzi before his picks segments on “The NFL Today” show on CBS.
“When I was a kid, I remember Jimmy the Greek calling Jack for his opinions and for his number on games before each segment, particularly during the NFL playoffs,” he said. “When one team would win and the matchup was set for the next week, The Greek would call the house to discuss the next matchup and five minutes later we’d see him on TV talking about it.”
Manteris said his uncle’s best sports were boxing and college basketball but that he also was a very sharp football handicapper.
“Some family friends of ours in Pittsburgh would call for Uncle Jack’s bowl games every year,” he said. “This is going to sound too preposterous to print but he would generally have about 15 plays and he had a winning record for about 30 years in a row.”
Andrews recounts a story in his book about how his uncle was indicted in Pittsburgh on bookmaking charges in 1970 after the FBI had followed him for 18 months and tapped his phone. The judge threw out the case because Franzi wasn’t a big bookie, as alleged; he was a big bettor.
About 25 years later, Andrews was having dinner in Las Vegas when a man recognized his Uncle Jack. It was an ex-FBI agent who had worked Franzi’s case and listened to his phone calls — and bet all of his picks.
The former fed told Franzi, “I was writing down the sides you were playing and calling my bookie when I got off work. It was the best two football seasons I ever had.”
Manteris said his Uncle Jack stayed sharp until the end, picking the Toronto Raptors to win the 2019 NBA title before the playoffs started.
“He was almost on his death bed and he still had the ability to see how good (Kawhi) Leonard was and how good the Raptors were,” he said. “After they beat the Bucks and got into the Finals, he laughed. He knew he nailed that one, too.”