Sixty years ago, on June 27, 1955, Harry Agganis died. “The Golden Greek,” as he was widely known, was the most celebrated Greek-American athlete of his era. From his meteoric rise to fame to his untimely death at the age of 26, he captured the attention of the American public. Handsome, humble, and talented, he was a public relations dream, but what made him special was his devotion to his family, his church, and his community.
Born Aristotle George Agganis, he was the youngest of seven children of George and Georgia Agganis, who both immigrated to America from Sparta in the first decade of the 20th century. His mother called him “Ari,” which became “Harry” to his childhood friends.
After an outstanding high school career, he was recruited by colleges across the country. Frank Leahy, the legendary coach at Notre Dame, labeled him “the finest prospect I’ve ever seen.” Agganis chose to attend nearby Boston University. It was not a football power, but it allowed him to be near his recently widowed mother.
Agganis thrust BU football into the national spotlight. Widely considered the top player in the country, he was the first pick of the Cleveland Browns in the football draft. Agganis turned down the Browns’ $50,000 offer, taking less money to play for the Boston Red Sox. He wanted to stay close to home and had confidence he could prove himself in baseball, too. After a year in the minor leagues, he won the starting job at first base.
Agganis always lit a candle at St. George in Lynn when the Red Sox played home games at Fenway Park. While playing for the Sox, he became acquainted with a young priest at the Annunciation Cathedral, Fr. James Coucouzis (later Archbishop Iakovos). Fr. Coucouzis, who sometimes saw Agganis play,commented at the time, “He was rather humble and kind, and liked to converse with everyone. . . He was an example to the young athletes of the time. He was grateful to God for his parents who were church people... He was proud of them, and they were proud of him.”
He was hitting over .300 when he was felled by pneumonia during the 1955 season, his third with the Red Sox. Hospitalized in May, he returned to play two games, suffered a relapse, and re-entered the hospital. He died suddenly from a massive pulmonary embolism. The news of his death on June 27 stunned the nation.
The next day his body was transferred to St. George in Lynn to lie in state. Agganis had helped pay for the new church, which had opened earlier that year, donating a sizable part of his signing bonus with the Red Sox to the building fund. From June 28 to 30, more than 30,000 people came to the church, standing in line for hours to pay their respects. Presiding at his funeral on June 30 was Athenagoras Kokkinakis, titular bishop of Elaia and newly-appointed prelate of the Diocese of Boston. He was assisted by six priests, including Frs. Christopher Argyrides and Charles Mihos, who served St. George for three quarters of a century. Fr. Mihos delivered the eulogy.
Among the thousand mourners crowded into the church for the funeral were the governor of Massachusetts, the president of Boston University, and more than 50 uniformed Little Leaguers. Another thousand heard the service in the community center, and 6,000 more stood outside the church. More than 20,000 lined the streets to watch the funeral procession to Pine Grove Cemetery. Agganis was buried next to his father, who died in 1946 and had never seen his son’s exploits on the field.
His Red Sox teammates were scheduled to play a Red Cross benefit game in Washington and could not be present at the funeral. Both teams attended a special memorial service conducted by Fr. Thomas Daniels of Sts. Constantine and Helen Church in the nation’s capital. Fr. Daniels was one of many Greek Orthodox priests across the Archdiocese who knew Agganis personally. While on road trips, in college and as a professional, Agganis visited Greek Orthodox churches everywhere he went. “That boy would have made a fine priest...he was so openly honest about everything,” Fr. Daniels said.
In August, Archbishop Michael instructed all Greek Orthodox parishes of the Western Hemisphere to observe the 40-day memorial for Agganis. This was the first time such a tribute, usually reserved for Greek statesmen and royalty, was accorded a Greek-American. At Annunciation Cathedral in Boston, Fr. Peter Kyriakos said the service was “an expression of the ability, morals, and character of Harry Agganis, a great fighter who won the greatest battle – that of eternal life.”
Today monuments and memorials to Agganis abound. A mural featuring Agganis adorns the foyer of his high school in Lynn. The Agganis All-Star Football Classic in Lynn annually attracts the top talent in the region and is a major fundraiser for the Harry Agganis Foundation, which has provided over $1.5 million in athletic scholarships.
A life-size bronze statue stands before Agganis Arena, which opened in 2005 at the corner of Harry Agganis Way and Commonwealth Avenue on the campus of Boston University. Agganis Field at Camp Lejune, N.C., honors his service in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
To this day, his brief life continues to serve as an example to young people. Archbishop Michael characterized Agganis as “young in age, but mature spiritually and mentally.” His mother said at the funeral, “God has taken him at this time to bring home to young people everywhere how high they can go from nothing if they work hard and live good lives.”