Friday, March 15, 2013

Gone Too Soon: Harry Agganis: "The Golden Greek"

I'm not old enough to remember Harry Agganis. But I did pay a pretty penny to add his 1955 Topps baseball card to my collection a few years ago.  

Harry Agganis was born in 1929 to poor immigrant parents in West Lynn, Massachusetts. His folks had emigrated from Sparta, Greece. Harry was a gifted athlete and gained acclaim for his baseball skills at the age of 14 while playing for the Lynn Frasers in a semi-pro league. There were several major league pitchers in the loop, who played on weekends while serving in the military. Agganis hit .342 before he was even old enough to drive.

Football was undeniably his best sport as he threw 29 touchdowns in his junior year of high school while leading his team to a national championship. Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy commented that Agganis was the "finest prospect" he had ever seen. Scouts literally camped out near his home as he was pursued by 75 colleges. He chose Boston University to avoid being separated from his widowed mother. He was so highly touted that one of his freshman college games attracted 20,000 fans. During his senior year, he was being compared to the great quarterbacks of the era such as Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh.

Blessed with good looks and a well-sculpted frame (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), Agganis became a cover boy for numerous magazines, including Sport and the Saturday Evening Post. When the Korean war arrived, he chose to serve even though he could have avoided it. He later turned down a $50,000 offer from the Cleveland Browns, signing for less with the Red Sox. Baseball wasn't even his best sport as he had hit at an even-.300 clip in two seasons at Boston University.

Agganis made the majors after one year at the AAA level with the Louisville Colonels. He led the American League in assists as a first baseman in his rookie year, but hit just .251. He vowed to raise his average above .300 in his second season and was on track before falling seriously ill in mid-May of 1955. Stricken with viral pneumonia, he was hospitalized for ten days and returned to the lineup too soon. He fell ill again a week later during a road trip.  His lung infection was complicated by phlebitis, but he appeared to be on the mend when he died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism on June 27th. He was only 26  years old.

Flags were flown at half mast and congressmen gave tribute speeches in Washington. Agganis's services were held at St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, which Agganis had helped build by donating a substantial portion of his Red Sox salary. His funeral was attended by thousands. Today, there are still streets and stadiums named after him. A foundation bearing his name has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to New England students. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

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