There have been many great Greek-American athletes: Pete Sampras in tennis, Alex Karras and Fred Smerlas in football, Chris Chelios in hockey, Jim Londos in wrestling, who came from Greece; decathlete Tom Pappas. But the greatest of all was The Golden Greek, Harry Agganis, a burgeoning star first baseman with the Boston Red Sox in the 1950’s who was about to also sign a contract to play professional football and be one of the first two-sport stars.
With a body like a Greek god and seemingly invincible, Agganis, only 26, was felled by a pulmonary embolism on June 27, 1955, as he looked to be headed for stardom with the Red Sox, and on his way to professional football – a sport in which he was perhaps even better.
The best high school player in the country in both football and baseball at Lynn Classical in Massachusetts – taking his team to the national championship in football – Agganis wanted to be near his mother and chose Boston University after being recruited by scores of colleges. Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy called him, “The finest prospect I’ve ever seen.”
He became B.U.’s first All-American: both as a quarterback and defensive back, and was the best punter in the country to boot. After setting a batch of records there and taking time out to serve in the Marines – the field at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina is named after him – Agganis was the number one draft choice of the Cleveland Browns to replace Otto Graham at quarterback but turned them down to play with the Red Sox so he could be near his mother.
Agganis’ family origins were from Longanikos near Sparta and he was immensely proud of his Greek heritage. Every year a basketball tournament is played in his name at his church, St. George’s in Lynn.
Agganis played basketball in high school and was a rival of Lynn English’s Lou Tsiropoulos, who went on to win an NCAA title with Kentucky and world championship with the Boston Celtics.
Agganis drew crowds of 20,000 to high school games and packed fields at B.U., including filling Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, for games the team played there, including a titanic battle with Maryland.
He may have been even better at football, but loved baseball more. He played in 1953 with the Triple-A Louisville Colonels where he hit .281 with 23 home runs and 108 RBI. Agganis had as much humility as talent and Colonels President Eddie Doherty said, “I never saw a first year boy do so well in Triple-A. He’s a real high-grade kid with his first thoughts for his mother. His cap was too big for him when he got here and it was the same size when he left. When you get a kid like that, you know you have a pro.”
He made the jump to the majors in 1954 and in his first at-bat, with a lugging runner, George Kell, on first base and the Fenway crowd watching his first at-bat in the Majors, Agganis lined a screaming triple off the right-field bullpen wall and would have had an inside-the-park home run except that he caught up to Kell rounding third and had to stop there.
The next month, on the same day he was playing at Fenway Park for the Sox, Agganis hit a game-winning home run and dashed off to get his diploma up the street at B.U.
He had a disappointing year by his standards, hitting only .251 but said he knew he was a .300 hitter and got off to a good start in 1955, hitting .313, with Ted Williams predicting he would be one of the best hitters in the game, along with his sterling defensive skills.
On June 2, 1955, Agganis complained of not feeling well and during a train trip to Kansas City began coughing incessantly and looked dispirited, unusual for him. The team sent him back to Boston where he was hospitalized with pneumonia and a swelling in his leg. It turned out to be a blood clot that would kill him.
An estimated 30,000 people came to his wake at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Lynn, right across the street from his old high school, and Aggains was gone. In 1995, a drive was held to collect donations for a statue of Agganis, and hundreds of people packed a Boston hotel ballroom to see the unveiling. The statue is in the New England Sports Hall of Fame in Boston, and a duplicate stands outside Boston University, which named a street and its arena after him.