WHO IS HARRY AGGANIS?
In life, he was the perfect model for the great American sports novel. In death, he was the ironic portrait of a Greek tragedy.
He was the corny Merriwell hero come to life in the American dream come true - the son of poor immigrant parents who fights his way from the wrong side of the tracks to fame and fortune. He was the Homeric hero, dead at barely 26.
Harry Agganis had vaulted from Lynn Classical to Boston University and was a .300-hitting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox. And when he died June 27, 1955, of a massive blood clot, the American sports scene was stunned, and eulogies abounded. You had to have seen Harry Agganis to have believed him. He was the multi-sport athlete long before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were born.
Some of the flavor can be captured by examining BU's 1949-'51 and '52 football films catalogued in the coaches' suite at Nickerson Field. Reading the millions of words on crumbling, yellowed clippings in the Agganis files of The Daily Item of Lynn provides further insight. So will recollections of those who knew him best athletically - coaches, teammates and opponents.
It will not provide the entire story of this National Football Foundation Hall of Famer who turned his back on the NFL and instead made the majors in baseball. But it will help explain the legend of the Golden Greek, revealing:
* How he was born on April 20, 1929, in a second-floor flat on Waterhill Street in West Lynn (his lifetime home), the seventh and last child of George and Georgia Agganis, immigrants from the village of Loggonike in Sparta, Greece.
* How he first attracted athletic attention at age 14, playing for the Lynn Frasers in a war-time semipro atmosphere and batting .342 against pitchers such as Walt Masterson, Randy Gumpert, Hugh Mulcahy and Doyle Lade - all established major leaguers playing weekends while in military service. (A couple of decent catchers named Yogi Berra and Jim Hegan also played in that game under pseudonyms.)
* How he led Bill Joyce's Lynn Classical teams to a 30-4-1 record in three football seasons, completing 326 of 502 passes for 4,149 yards and 48 touchdowns, scoring 24 more TDs himself and kicking 39 extra points.
* How more than 20,000 fans were packed SRO at Manning Bowl week after week to watch the stylish southpaw - so popular that some Friday night games were carried by a budding medium called television.
* How, while still a schoolboy, he was playing football in Miami's Orange Bowl (outpitching Chuck Stobbs to beat Granby High of Norfolk, Va., winners of 32 in a row) and all-star baseball at New York's Polo Grounds, Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park and Braves Field.
* How, as a high school junior throwing 29 touchdown passes and leading his team to an 11-0-1 season and the mythical national championship, he caused Bob Neyland, the coach at Tennessee, to say: "That young man could step into any college backfield right now."
* How, as a senior and captain of the All-America schoolboy team, Notre Dame Coach Frank Leahy labeled him, "the finest prospect I've ever seen." And how UMass Athletic Director and longtime coach Warren McGuirk said, "This boy is ready for the National Football League right now."
Harry Agganis had vaulted from Lynn Classical to Boston University and was a .300-hitting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox.
* How some 75 colleges sought him, how scouts literally camped on his doorstep - and how to avoid them he had to sneak over the back fence and through the back door to supper.
* How he chose BU; because he didn't want to leave his widowed mother, because he believed in making his name where he wanted to live in later years, because he wanted to play for Aldo (Buff) Donelli and because he simply liked BU.
* How BU had a big enrollment and a little football team before he arrived to project it into the national football spotlight.
* How an army of football experts trekked 10 miles daily from Boston to old Nickerson Field in Weston - then the Terriers' practice base (they played home games at Fenway Park before Bu acquired Braves Field in 1953) to study the freshman and ignore the varsity.
* How a meaningless BU-Holy Cross freshman game attracted 20,000 to Worcester on a Friday afternoon.
* How Benny Friedman, the former great college and pro passer not given to overstatement, said after seeing him play for the first time as a varsity collegian: "The kid is better than Sid Luckman, Sammy Baugh and Frankie Albert."
* How, in that sophomore season, he led the Terriers to six straight victories (including triumphs over powerhouses Syracuse, 33-21, and West Virginia, 52-20) before losing a 14-13 heartbreaker at Fenway to Maryland, then in its bowl era. u How he set three major Bu records that varsity season: most touchdown passes in a game (4) most TD passes in a season (15) and punting average (46.5).
* How he was reluctant to inscribe his name in the record books ï¿½ How he was within eight TD passes of the national college record with four games to go ï¿½ How Donelli told him: "You can beat the record." ï¿½ How he replied, "Who wants records? Let's win the games." ï¿½ And how Donelli mused: "Sometimes I wonder who's the coach and who's the player."
* How he was the complete player; calling both offensive and defensive signals, quarterback on offense, safety on defense, punter and placekicker (both kickoffs and points-after).
* How he was a passer, not a thrower, a study in coolness under pressure ... How he'd drop back 20-25 yards while fans shrieked with mingled delight and fear, and throw at the last possible moment to complete the pass - rarely forced to eat the ball.
* How he had six official fan clubs while a collegian (he even had one as a schoolboy) and how he received 20-25 letters a day - so many an assistant manager spent most of his time helping answer them).
* How, as a bachelor, he made fans out of bobby-soxers who hadn't known a pass from a punt - a rage at 6-1, 195, with jet-black hair, dark brown eyes, olive skin and glistening white teeth that inspired swoons and feminine wolf calls.
* How he was the cover boy of national magazines (as a collegian he was the subject of three full-length pictures in Sport and another Saturday Evening Post).
* How he was activated in the Marine Corps Reserve during the Korean War buildup just before the 1950 football season - and how he served a year, although he probably could have ducked it on a dependency claim.
* How he arrived back in Boston less than 40 hours before the Terriers were to leave for the '51 opener at William & Mary and how, with just one hour of practice, he passed for two touchdowns and scored another.
* How he was the No. 1 draft choice of the Cleveland Browns as a junior (because of his military hitch he was a year behind the rest of his class and thus eligible for the draft) and how Browns Coach Paul Brown called him "the man who will succeed Otto Graham."
* How in the 9-7 win over three-TD favorite Miami, he not only intercepted two passes and made 14 tackles, but also completed four straight passes for Bu's only TD, and boomed punts of 58, 65 and 67 yards, the final kick resulting in the winning safety.
"I've already proven myself in football. I don't know if I can make good in baseball - but I have the confidence I can."
* How fans also remember the walloping he took against No. 2 Maryland at sold-out Fenway in '52, the Terrapins taking no chances this time and burying him under one human avalanche after another - coasting to a 34-7 victory after sending him to the hospital with a serious rib injury. ("I always felt the beating he took that day contributed to his death," said former Red Sox General Manager Dick O'Connell. "I'm no doctor but I suspect blood clots sometimes don't show up for a while.")
* How in his football farewell he was MVP of the Senior Bowl (59 minutes, 2 TD passes, 2 interceptions in leading the North to a 21-14 win).
* How after his last football game, BU retired jersey No. 33 - just as Lynn Classical had done.
* How he turned down a $50,0000 offer from the Browns and almost sure stardom, instead signing for perhaps less money (said to be between $35,000 and $50,000) with the Red Sox in a game that wasn't his best sport (he'd batted only .300 in two seasons at Bu).
* How he said of the gamble, "I've already proven myself in football. I don't know if I can make good in baseball - but I have the confidence I can."
* How he purposely signed a Red Sox contract in November 1952 so he could get minor-league seasoning. A week later, a new bonus role would have forced him to stay with the parent club for two seasons.
* How, after one season with Triple-A Louisville, he made it to the majors.
* How that rookie season he led the league in assists by a first baseman and hit 8 of his 11 homers at Fenway, the most Fenway homers by any left-hander except for Ted Williams in 25 years ï¿½ But how his .251 average disappointed him, and how he vowed the following spring: "I'm a .300 hitter. I know I'll do it." And how he did do it, raising his average to .313 that second season before falling critically ill.
* How he was stricken by viral pneumonia in mid-May 1955, hospitalized 10 days before rushing back to the lineup too soon, doctors said, only to be stricken again a week later while on a Red Sox road trip ï¿½ How the severe infection was complicated by phlebitis, but how he appeared to be recovering when on June 27 he died suddenly and almost unbelievably of a massive pulmonary embolism - a large blood clot that blocked an artery - at Sancta Maria Hospital, in Cambridge.
* How flags were flown at half-mast, newspapers printed editorials, and congressmen issued tributes from the floor of the Capitol.
* How, despite efforts by GM Joe Cronin, a Red Sox game at Washington couldn't be postponed because it was a long-planned Red Sox benefit ï¿½ And so how a memorial service was conducted on the field by Greek Orthodox priests, with teammate Sammy White and announcer Curt Gowdy delivering the eulogies.
* How in a day and a half between 20,000 and 30,000 mourners - including consuls, governors, educators and some of the biggest names in sports - filed past his bier by the altar in St. George's Greek Orthodox Church in Lynn (a church he'd helped construct, signing over a substantial part of his Red Sox contract to a building fund).
* How 1,000 filled the church, 3,000 an adjacent hall, and 6,000 spilled onto the street, at his funeral.
His rookie season he led the league in assists by a first baseman and hit 8 of his 11 homers at Fenway.
* How more than 20,000 lined the 1ï¿½-mile cortege route to Pine Grove Cemetery, on a hillside overlooking Manning Bowl.
* How 400 churches in North and South America held memorial services - an honor customarily reserved for Greek royalty and statesmen.
* How the community Center at St. George's (which houses most of his trophies and memorabilia); a Lynn square; a stadium at Camp LeJeune, N.C.; a portrait in baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; a plaque in the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame, the Manning Bowl/Fraser Field/Prunier Field complex; and the memorial foundation (which has awarded $1,187,525 in scholarships to 780 student-athletes) bear his name.
It is a legend that ironically reached full attainment, despite all its brilliance - a meteor burned out in barely 26 years.
It is a legend we honor today.
Written by George Sullivan