Why we honored Harry Agganis
In a world weaned on anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Nicholas Brody, where civility has been sidelined and virtue gets played like an easy mark, the story of Aristotle George “Harry” Agganis reads like an updated version of an ancient Greek myth, adorned with qualities we ascribe to gods but beyond the mortal coil. No one who has drawn human breath could be all the things Harry Agganis was said to be.
Except that he was.
Harry Agganis, the youngest of seven children born to desperately poor Greek immigrants who can trace their ancestry to Sparta, was a magnificent athlete. That’s the easiest part of the story to believe, because so many bore witness to the skills he displayed on the football field, basketball court and baseball diamond. The boy who grew up on Waterhill Street in Lynn was already attracting notice in junior high, starring for a Park League team and collecting hits off big-league pitchers playing on service teams in the midst of World War II. At Lynn Classical, where crowds of 20,000 routinely packed Manning Bowl, he became arguably the greatest high school athlete New England has ever produced, quarterbacking the football team to a “national” championship in 1946 — the same year his father George died — while also starring on the basketball and baseball teams.
Already nicknamed the “Golden Greek,” Agganis chose to stay close to home — and his widowed mother Georgia — for college, selecting Boston University, where he became an All-American quarterback in a stint interrupted by a year playing QB for the U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune. He drew raves from legendary Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown, who made the left-handed passer his top draft pick and tried to entice him with a six-figure signing bonus.
Instead, Agganis signed for much less money with the hometown Red Sox, and soon earned the distinction of being the only athlete in Fenway Park history ever to excel in both baseball and football. Few entertained doubts that Agganis would become a Red Sox regular and future star. After one season in Triple-A Louisville in which he played every inning of every game, Agganis was promoted in 1954 to the big leagues. In his first game at Fenway Park, he tripled, singled and executed a perfect sacrifice bunt. On one memorable Sunday against the Yankees, he delivered three hits, including a home run, then hustled up Commonwealth Avenue to receive his degree at BU’s graduation ceremonies.
By the next season, 1955, Agganis was the team’s everyday first baseman and batting over .300. Johnny Pesky called him the best athlete ever to play for the Red Sox. Ted Williams took him out to dinner. The sportswriters couldn’t get enough of him.
And long before it reached this point, the story had already taken on a too-good-to-be-true aspect.
Men and women alike swooned over his chiseled physique, jet-black hair and movie-star smile, but what really set Agganis apart was how remarkably unaffected he was by the adulation surrounding him. His devotion to his family was paramount, but there had been other character-revealing moments, too. In 1947, he and his Lynn Classical teammates refused to play in a high school bowl game in the South because the school was told they couldn’t bring their two African-American players with them.
Not the least bit self-conscious, Harry loved to sing, and starred as Captain Hook in the school’s production of “Peter Pan.”
A sports columnist for the Lynn Item, Red Hoffman, recounted a story of the conversation he had with Agganis after running into him in a local diner. “Please don’t write my name in the paper so much,’’ Hoffman recalled Agganis telling him. “I don’t want people to think I’m a hot dog.’’
Joe Morgan, the former Red Sox manager who was an All-American hockey player at Boston College, also played baseball for the Eagles and recalled his first encounter with Agganis.
“I don’t know if this has ever happened in baseball,’’ Morgan says. “We go over to BU. Harry’s playing first base. In the first inning, I get a base hit, and now I’m on first base. Harry takes his glove off, sticks his hand out and says, ‘Hey, I’m Harry Agganis, Joe. How are you?’
“How about that? You ever hear of that before?’’
But it would not be a Greek story without a large serving of pathos, and the Agganis story would take a tragic turn. On May 16, 1955, Agganis went to team trainer Jack Fadden, according to the Boston Globe, and told the trainer that he had been playing with “a pain in his side.” The diagnosis was pneumonia.
Agganis returned to the club on June 1 in Chicago and played in two games, collecting hits in both of them. But upon arriving by train in Kansas City, Agganis, coughing nonstop and complaining of congestion in his chest, was sent back home to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge to undergo more tests.
He never came out. At 11:45 a.m. on June 27, 1955, 63 years ago today, Harry Agganis shockingly died in his hospital room — “vanished,’’ wrote sportswriter Austin Lake in the Record-American, “in the high noon of his vitality, poof.’’ He was 26. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism.
His dying words were reported to have been, “Take care of my mother…make sure she is all right.’’
Agganis was laid in state at the St. George Greek Orthodox Community Church in Lynn. In keeping with Greek tradition, he was dressed in the traditional dress of a bridegroom, with a garland of apple blossoms placed on his head and an apple blossom in his lapel. Thousands of mourners passed by his casket; pitcher Frank Sullivan and other club officials represented the Red Sox at the funeral.
The rest of the ballclub was in Washington to play the Senators. The game was delayed an hour so that an observance at Griffith Stadium could be held simultaneously with the funeral.
Catcher Sammy Ellis offered a eulogy of his teammate.
“Harry was not only a talented athlete with the strength of a Hercules, the competitive spirit and courage of a lion, and the possessor of almost a ferocious desire to win,’’ Ellis said. “He was a leader and, at the same time, a follower of all that was good.’’
Broadcaster Curt Gowdy added his thoughts. “They called him the Golden Greek. True, his athletic talents were golden and shining. And so was Harry Agganis, personally. Devoted to his mother and family…extremely loyal to his friends, teammates and coaches. Personal habits which could well be copied by every youngster in the country.
“A determined aggressiveness on the field which made him respected by everyone…these are the things which made Harry Agganis “golden” to those who knew him.’’
The legacy of the Golden Greek endures through a foundation that has awarded scholarships worth millions in his name, through the charity high-school All-Star games played annually in Lynn in his name, through the Agganis Arena, Agganis Way and life-sized statue that adorn the Boston University campus. And on June 27th, the 63d anniversary of his death, the Red Sox celebrated Greek Heritage Night by paying lasting tribute to Agganis, unveiling a plaque in his honor. The mists of history cannot obscure the true hero who walked among us.