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Icons Among Us: The Golden Greek

1950s BU sports phenom Harry Agganis looms large

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See BU’s greatest athlete, Harry Agganis (SED’54), in action in the video above. The school’s first All-American in football, he was drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 1952, but chose to play baseball instead, signing with the Boston Red Sox. Historic photos by BU Photography

The game might not have been as fast in the early 1950s and the cameras that filmed the action not as sophisticated, but in vintage clips from the BU gridiron, number 33 still moves like mercury, slipping tackles, floating downfield, tossing perfect spirals—a pedestal destined for his cleats.

Though struck down just as he was taking flight, Harry Agganis (SED’54) fulfilled that destiny and then some: dead 55 years, his spirit still soars, his name gracing a foundation, a street, and an arena. The bronze demigod presides over Comm Ave, poised to launch a pigskin above the T tracks and into forever.

A statue of Agganis stands outside of the BU sports complex that bears his name. Photo by Brianna Healy (COM’12).

“He was incredibly gifted,” says Tom Demakis, a lawyer and chairman of the Agganis Foundation, which provides college scholarships to student athletes from Boston and the North Shore. “In high school, the coach at Notre Dame said Harry was the finest prospect he’d ever seen. Warren McGuirk, the head coach and athletic director at U Mass, said, ‘This boy is ready for the NFL right now.’”

The son of Greek immigrants, Agganis was born Aristotle George Agganis in 1929 in Lynn, Mass. Equally masterful swinging a bat and fielding grounders, he left his mark all over the playing fields of Lynn Classical High School, and fans soon referred to him as the “Golden Greek.”

“He was recruited by every college in the country,” says his great-nephew Greg Agganis (SHA’92), a member of the Agganis Foundation board. “But his main goal was to stay local, be close to his widowed mother, and help build a football program at BU.”

As a Terrier, the six-foot-one Agganis suited up mostly as a quarterback. During his sophomore year, in 1949, he rewrote the school record book by tossing 15 touchdown passes and throwing for 1,042 yards. In 1950, he left school to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, but returned to campus a year later to guide BU on the gridiron, snagging the University’s first All-America honors in football. With 15 school records in his pocket, Agganis was inducted into BU’s Athletics Hall of Fame as soon as he stepped off the graduation stage, his number 33 jersey retired.

In college, his reputation spread beyond the Bay State. Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown saw in Agganis a successor to his superstar quarterback Otto Graham, also a dual-sport athlete. Brown drafted the BU junior in the first round of the NFL draft in 1952, dangling a $25,000 bonus. But Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey one-upped Brown, signing Agganis as a first baseman. Yawkey had local loyalty on his side. Agganis’ devotion to his mother, his hometown, and his alma mater was bottomless.

“He was passionate about BU,” says Greg Agganis, who is currently at work on a documentary about his great-uncle. “He never forgot BU. Even when he signed with the Red Sox, he went back to campus and coached a little bit with the football and baseball teams.”

In his rookie year in the majors, Agganis led American League first basemen in assists and fielding percentage and hit 11 homers. The next season, he was batting cleanup after Ted Williams and hitting .313. In the middle of May 1955, complaining of a fever and intense chest pains, he was hospitalized with viral pneumonia. He was released a week and a half later and rejoined the Sox on a swing of road games. But in Kansas City, he fell ill again and was flown back to Boston. A few days later, as he appeared to be on the mend, he died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, a large blood clot that blocked a main artery to his lungs. He was 26. Thousands of mourners filed past his coffin at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Lynn; 20,000 more lined the cortege route to the cemetery. Flags were flown at half-mast and tributes recited in the chambers of the U.S. Capitol.

“I was eight years old at the time,” says Demakis, who also grew up in Lynn. “I was going to day camp in Wenham, Mass., and the counselor who used to pick us up was a football and baseball coach at Lynn Classical. When we piled into his car, he was crying. We said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘You guys know who Harry Agganis is? Well, he died today.’ That poor guy, who was in his 50s at the time, just sobbed all the way from Wenham to Lynn.”

But Harry Agganis’ impact was far from over. The year of his death, the Boston Red Sox, Lynn’s Daily Item newspaper, and Agganis mentor Harold O. Zimman launched the Agganis Foundation. The organization has since given $1.3 million in scholarships to more than 800 area high school athletes. In 1974, Agganis was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. On campus, Gaffney Street, near Nickerson Field, was renamed Harry Agganis Way in 1995, and in 2004, the new 290,000-square-foot athletic complex adjacent to the FitRec Center was christened Agganis Arena. At the front entrance stands a bronze statue of the Golden Greek in his prime, his high lace-up cleats planted on a granite pedestal. Renowned sports sculptor Armand LaMontagne, who created the much-photographed Ted Williams and Babe Ruth statues at the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., worked with black-and-white photographs and models in original Terrier uniforms to get the BU alum just right.

“Later, when I was talking to Ted Williams and told him I was doing Agganis, he had high praise for Harry and said he was one of the great potentials, a long-ball power hitter,” LaMontagne says. “Ted was really upset at his death, as were many other people. They tell me Harry was a real gentleman, too.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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3 Comments

3 Comments on Icons Among Us: The Golden Greek

  • Anonymous on 08.31.2010 at 11:29 pm

    grea article

    That’s a good man to model yourself after. He did so much in such a short span of time. I love the fact he was a mamma’s boy. I’m saying this as I am a former Marine and attending BU now. I consider myself a mamma’s boy and I would want my daughter to marry a man who loved his mom.

  • jim gorman on 06.26.2012 at 3:22 pm

    I showed up at Coach Buff Donellis office in September ’53 to play quarterback for the freshman team. Harry Cleverly was the freshman coach and Harry Agganis was a graduate assistant. I remember on several occasions I would be walking through the Commons and run into Harry, (he usually had a good looking gal on his arm). He’d call me over and suggest a game situation and ask me what play I would call. I would come up with what I hoped was the right call, then he’d say,”O.K. let’s see you execute it. I’m sure the students in the Commons wondered what the heck was going on.He taught me a lot of the finer points at the quarterback positiion which helped me in my football endeavors elsewhere down the road, which included a stint for the 3rd Battallion on Parris Island.
    He was a heck of a nice guy and a fine gentleman.I’m sure his mom was very proud.

  • gary e. capehart on 06.28.2012 at 2:45 pm

    At Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the football field was named after Harry. Both in the Corps and at BU he was “Semper Fidelis”
    always faithful. Just as the previous story reveals.

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