“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
by Nick Tsiotis and Andy Dablis
Harry Agganis was born in Lynn, Mass. April 30, 1930, and died at Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge June 27, 1955. He was the Red Sox first baseman when he died, but he was a star football player, and his biography is mostly a football story.
He was born 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. His full name was Aristotle George Agganis -- his mother called him Ari, which got Americanized to Harry. He grew up in a Greek neighborhood, he spoke Greek at home and was a devout Greek Orthodox. His boyhood friends were mostly Greeks. He belonged to a Greek boy scout troop, and played basketball for a Greek church team which included future Celtic Lou Tsiropoulos. (They won 71 straight games.)
Lynn was a thriving city in those days, with General Electric providing plenty of employment. Harry was a left-handed quarterback for Lynn Classical High (the city has two high schools, the other being Lynn English). In 1946 Harrys team rolled over one opponent after another. The undefeated Classical team traveled to Miami and beat Granby, Va. High School (which included future Red Sox hurler Chuck Stobbs) at the Orange Bowl on Christmas Day. There were reports that as much as $500,000 to $1 million was bet on that game.
You have to transport yourself back to a time when football was watched from a stadium seat, not from the living room couch. Adults in New England attended high school football games by the thousands -- the honor of their city was at stake! Harry Agganis was so good a football player, and his team was so popular, that most opponents were glad to schedule their games at Lynn's Manning Bowl -- capacity 20,000 -- to get the extra money the games brought in. In 1947 Classical drew more than 160,000 fans, and grossed more than $110,000 for the school, with a profit of $40,000. The 47 squad -- 10 wins and a loss to Peabody -- declined another bowl game because they weren't allowed to bring their two black players. Instead Harry, now wearing number 33 after his hero Sammy Baugh, played postseason games against the New Hampshire All-Stars, Nashua High, and the Greater Boston All-Stars. In two seasons with Harry as starting QB, Classical's record was 21-1-1. He passed for 48 touchdowns, and scored 24 himself. One coach said, Agganis plays and thinks like a 25-year-old college player.
Seventy-five colleges, from Notre Dame on down, tried to recruit Harry Agganis but he wanted to stay close to home. His mother had been widowed in 1946, and as the youngest of Georgia's 7 children Harry wanted to take care of her. Boston College, then as now, was the biggest football power in New England. BC sent their captain, a Greek-American, to recruit Harry. But the BC guy told him confidentially that a lot of people at the Jesuit school had resented a Greek Orthodox getting the captains job.
Harry began to lean toward the secular, more blue collar Boston University, which had a large student body but an undistinguished football program. It was said that BC had student body of 6,000 and drew 30,000 football fans to Braves Field; while BU had 30,000 students and drew 6,000 people to Fenway Park. BU was trying to upgrade its program, hiring coach Buff Donelli and scheduling tougher opponents. Influential in getting Harry to BU were the Pappas brothers, food store magnates and strong supporters of the school; and their friend Tom Yawkey, who wanted more college football fans at Fenway.
College football was more important than the pros in those days; Notre Dame and Army had more fans nationwide than the Bears or Redskins. Colleges were more perhaps more grownup places than today; with thousands of returning veterans getting an education on the GI Bill. Harry enrolled in the School of Education. Freshmen didn't play varsity sports, but Agganis made an impact playing on the freshman team. A match against the Dartmouth frosh drew 6,000 to the BU practice field in Weston (called Nickerson Field, it stood exactly where the toll booths on the Massachusetts Turnpike are). Agganis' well-publicized showdown with a Holy Cross star drew 18,000 to Worcester's Fitton Field -- for a freshman game, on a Friday afternoon..
So Harry became a football star. Before Agganis and after Agganis, B.U. was a football nonentity. Harry was like Larry Bird at Indiana State -- he carried his team into national prominence. Vin Scully's first network radio job was from the roof of Fenway Park, BU vs. Maryland, 1949. Agganis was putting on such a show that the network switched the whole country to the game at halftime. BU lost by a point.
Football was a heroic sport, played without face guards. Agganis, a 50-minute man, played offense, defense, and did the kicking. In 1952's 9-7 win over three-touchdown favorite Miami he intercepted two passes, made 14 tackles and punted for 58, 65 and 67 yards, the final kick resulting in the winning safety. In a game against William & Mary that year, he was 14-for-22 passing for 187 yards and 4 TDs; he intercepted 2 passes, had two runs of more than 30 yards each, and punted for an average of 43 yards, including a 58-yard punt.
The biggest game of Harry's football career came a few weeks later at Fenway Park against Maryland, ranked second in the nation. It was Saturday, Nov. 1, 1952 and there were 40,000 fans in Fenway Park, including 3000 who had traveled up from Maryland to see their team, led by Ed Modelewski. The Terrapins had a simple game plan -- injure Agganis. After several gang tackles his ribs were so badly banged up that he had to be helped off the field. X-rays showed nothing broken, but severe bruises made it painful to breathe and caused him to miss the next two games. I always felt the beating he took that day contributed to his death, said former Red Sox general manager Dick O'Connell.
The Terriers finished with a record of 17-10-1 in Harry's three years at quarterback, a minor league school playing against national powers. He was second-team All-American at quarterback, behind Kentucky's Babe Parilli. The Sporting News called Agganis a great T-quarterback and forward passer. He was also a good punter, runner, and a star defensive player as a safety man.
Agganis left B.U. holding school records for passing yardage, touchdown passes, punting average, and interceptions. His passing stats might look puny by today's standards, but his punting average of 46.5 yards over three years would probably still get a pro contract, and as would 15 interceptions in a single season. After the regular season Harry dominated the North-South Senior Bowl in Alabama, with Paul Brown as his coach. Agganis had already been drafted #1 after his junior year by the NFL powerhouse Cleveland Browns. They offered him a large bonus (according to this book, the offer escalated to $100,000) and Coach Brown planned to make him Otto Grahams replacement.
But Harry signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox. You see, Aristotle Agganis had been playing a little baseball on the side. At the age of fourteen -- already six feet tall -- he'd played first base for a Lynn semi-pro team under the name Ted Casey, batting .342. He was an outstanding high school player, traveling to Wrigley Field in Chicago to play in the Esquire All-American Boy game in 1946. He and a friend started their own traveling semipro team called the Vrees All-Stars, after a Lynn diner where they hung out.
The Boston Red Sox had established a Class A farm team in Lynn. The business manager was Dick O'Connell and their scout was Neil Mahoney. This pair (who later built the 67 Red Sox) were following Agganis very closely throughout his high school career. Harry's high school football and baseball coach, Bill Joyce, was hired as president of the Lynn Red Sox. Harry himself was hired to do odd jobs for the Lynn club and occasionally worked out with the team.
In the summer of 47 Classical won the state baseball championship, with Harry hitting .352. He was chosen to play in the Hearst All-Star game at the Polo Grounds, and played semipro ball in the summer. In 48, after graduation, he played for the Augusta Millionaires in Maine; he and Ted Lepcio were the teams stars. At BU, Harry played baseball well enough, in relative obscurity -- the team only played 15 to 20 games a season. After his sophomore year in college he spent fifteen months (1950-51) in the Marine Corps. Unlike Ted Williams, Harry never got near Korea. He played baseball and football for Camp LeJeune, leading his team to the National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita, where he was named Most Valuable Player. Back at BU for the 52 baseball season, he batted .322, played for the Vrees All-Stars and then for Malone in upstate New York. He was not famous as a baseball player, but the scouts knew who he was, and they followed him around.
After the 1952 football season he told a reporter I've been torn between baseball and football for a long time, but have finally made up my mind to concentrate on baseball. On November 28, 1952 Harry Agganis shocked many fans by signing with the Boston Red Sox for a bonus of $50,000.
The Browns eventually gave up trying to sign Harry, and traded his rights to the Baltimore Colts. Perhaps after his injury in the Maryland game Harry had come to the conclusion that even if footballs upfront money was more, baseball offered a longer and safer career. There was no baseball draft in those days and the Red Sox were competing with the Tigers, Yankees, and Phillies for Harry's services. But the Sox always had the inside track -- his friendship with Mahoney and O'Connell, his old coach working for the Red Sox, his desire to stay close to home. Fenway Park had already been Harry's home field in football, and Tom Yawkey was willing to pay handsomely to keep him there for baseball.
Harry was the focus of much newspaper coverage at the Red Sox 1953 spring training camp, but as he'd expected, he was sent to Triple-A Louisville before the season began. Mike Pinky Higgins was the manager there. In his first pro season Agganis played every inning and batted .281 with 23 home runs and 111 RBIs. He finished second in the American Association MVP voting (by one vote) to Don Zimmer of St. Paul.
In spring training 1954 Harry was competing for the Boston first base job with Dick Gernert, a beefy right-handed slugger from Temple University, who'd had 21 homers and 88 RBIs for the Sox the year before. It hadn't been that many years since Jimmy Foxx had played in Boston, and the Sox were still looking for another Foxx -- a big muscular right-handed first baseman to knock it over the friendly left field wall. They'd already tried Rudy York, Jake Jones, Walt Dropo, and Gernert; the future would hold Norm Zauchin, Dick Staurt, George Scott, Ken Harrelson, etc. Cant miss. A swing tailored for Fenway Park. So Harry Agganis was competing with the memory of Jimmie Foxx. Harry was big for his era (6'2", 200), but he was left-handed. This was considered a liability at Fenway Park, where the right field bullpen was 380 feet away. Agganis was certainly faster and more agile than Gernert. Manager Lou Boudreau said he planned to platoon the two at first base. Agganis has consistently outplayed Gernert in the field.
In the Red Sox home opener against the Senators, April 15, 1954, Agganis hit a triple into the right field corner off Bob Porterfield. It would have been an inside-the-park homer, but lumbering George Kell was on first base, and Harry had to slow down to keep from passing him. The Red Sox had a tough year. Ted Williams broke his collarbone in spring training and didn't come back until May. Then he got pneumonia in June, and still almost won the batting title. Boudreau had started a rebuilding program and youngsters like Billy Consolo, Ted Lepcio and Milt Bolling were not panning out; Boston led the league in errors and had the second-worst ERA. They finished 69-85.
Dick Gernert contracted hepatitis, and Harry had the 1B position to himself for most of the season. But he had a rather disappointing year at the plate -- .251 with 11 homers and 57 RBI. Eight of his homers came at Fenway, which was quite an achievement for a lefty not named Williams. But Roy Campanella, after seeing him in an exhibition game, had said, I understand Agganis was quite a football player, but you know they don't curve a football. Higgins theorized that the pounding Harry's upper body took in football hindered him from hitting high pitches and reaching for low throws. Harry did lead the league in assists, and led the team with 8 triples, but it was not the spectacular success he was used to.
Lou Boudreau was fired after the 1954 debacle, and replaced by Mike Higgins, Harry's manager at Louisville. Ted Williams again missed spring training, this time due to his retirement (actually Ted was going through a bitter divorce). At Sarasota in 1955 there was a new entrant in the first base derby, the enormous (64-1/2", 220 lbs) Norm Zauchin of Royal Oak, Michigan. Zauchin hit well that spring and won the job, but he started the season 0-for-12, and Harry was soon back in the lineup. By mid-May, the team was making up ground after a slow start. Ted Williams was back and Harry hitting was over .300. I'm not trying to kill the ball, said Agganis. I'm trying to be a hitter. I'm following the ball better and hitting it where its pitched. He told another reporter that he had switched to a heavy 38-ounce bat so he could slap an outside pitch off the left field wall. He figured he was still strong enough to pull an inside pitch if he needed to.
On May 15 Harry played both ends of a Sunday double header against the Tigers. On Monday, an off-day, he showed up at Fenway Park complaining of a terrific pain in his right side. Trainer Jack Fadden took his temperature, saw a fever, and had Harry taken to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge -- a small Catholic hospital frequently used by the Red Sox. The team physician, Dr. Timothy Lamphier, diagnosed pneumonia in Harry's right lung, and kept him in the hospital for ten days. With a constant stream of visitors and well-wishers, he didn't get much rest.
Zauchin took over at first base, and a 3-home run, 10-RBI game on May 27 made it look like Norm would hang on to the job. When Agganis came back he looked pale, was sweating a lot and still coughing. He insisted that the team needed him, and maybe he was also worried about losing his job. Harry didn't start again until June 2 in Chicago, where he went 2-for-4. One of the hits looked like a sure triple, but after reaching second he sat down on the base, exhausted. In his last at bat, with two out and two on, the Sox trailing by two, Harry hit another rocket, only to be robbed by Jungle Jim Riveras circus catch. It was to be the last at-bat of his life. His 1955 batting average in 83 at-bats was .313, with 10 doubles, 1 triple, no home runs. His slugging average was .458. Harry told the Globes Clif Keane, Im tired, just tired.
On the train ride to Kansas City that night, Harry coughed incessantly. The next morning he again asked Fadden to take his temperature. Fadden found a fever and called General Manager Joe Cronin back in Boston. Agganis took a plane home, Cronin met him at the airport and drove him to Sancta Maria. Dr. Lamphier was off the case, replaced by Drs O'Neill, Badger and Rattigan. They diagnosed pneumonia in the left lung, as well as phlebitis in the right leg. The phlebitis -- a swelling of the wall of a vein -- had been there at least since April, when Harry had shown his girlfriend Jean Dallaire an ugly lump on his calf. The doctors kept him immobile and wrapped the leg in ice. They were worried about potential blood clotting. The pneumonia had him weak and still coughing frequently.
Harry confessed he had come back too soon the first time. The doctors announced Harry would now be out of action for two months, and Dr. Eugene O'Neill said, Harry was a lot sicker than he realized when he entered the hospital. His case is a very complicated and serious one. If his condition warrants, he could be idle all season. Harry's condition did not seem to improve. On June 16 he was put on the voluntary retired list, meaning he was done for the season. On June 25, after a visit from Ted Williams (who brought him a Davey Crockett magazine), Harry's brother found him coughing up blood. On the morning of Monday June 27, the doctors had decided to sit him up in a chair for the first time. As the doctors and nurses were lifting him up, he clutched his chest. Oh, I've got a terrific pain in my chest, he said. A blood clot had traveled to his lung -- a pulmonary embolism. Harry Agganis was dead twenty minutes later.
Was Harry's condition treated correctly? Its hard for us to say, 40 years later. Was he being given blood thinners? Did they even have blood thinners, or know what to do with them? Some of the medicine being practiced then was certainly primitive by today's standards. Some people in the Red Sox organization were not happy with Dr. Lamphier, the team physician. He was taken off Harry's case. Later on, Dr. Lamphier tried to warn them that the blood clot was potentially deadly, but he wasn't listened to. Lamphier later moved to Florida and lost his license after the death of several patients. There are stories blaming Yawkey (did he stop an operation?), the three doctors (they seemed stunned by Harry's sudden death), the little hospital (why wasn't he in Mass General or one of the other large teaching institutions?). What I heard was the doctors said they could strip the blood veins in his legs, said Harry's longtime friend Dick Lynch, but, if they did that, he might not be able to play sports. Harry decided not to go because he didn't want to give up sports.
The Red Sox were in Pittsburgh for an exhibition game when they heard the news from traveling secretary Tom Dowd. Manager Mike Higgins said, He had it made. We thought he'd be our first baseman for ten years to come. I don't know what to say or do, said Jimmy Piersall. I don't even feel like playing, but I have to. Its taken something out of me. The Sox played and lost, 8-2.
The day of Harry's funeral, June 30, 1955 the Red Sox were scheduled to play the Senators in Washington at 2 p.m., the same time as the funeral. General Manager Joe Cronin tried to get the game postponed out of respect for Harry and have the team flown back for the funeral services. Senators owner Calvin Griffith said the game was to benefit the Red Cross and couldn't be canceled, but moved the starting time to 3 p.m.. Members of the Red Sox and Senators lined up along the first and third base foul lines at Griffith Stadium, along with a crew of umpires and a U.S. Marine color guard. At home plate, two Greek Orthodox priests conducted their religious rites. The stands were almost empty for a ballgame no one really wanted to play.
Sammy White delivered a eulogy: The task that confronts me today is indeed a most difficult one, difficult because it is quite impossible to find the right words to completely express the deep sorrow we all feel for the loss of our teammate. How to tell his mother, his sisters and his brothers just how deep is our sympathy for them presents another difficulty. To tell all you people what Harry Agganis meant to me and his teammates really has me groping for appropriate words. Harry was not only a talented athlete with the strength of a Hercules, the competitive spirit and courage of a lion, and the possessor of an almost ferocious desire to win -- he was a leader and, at the same time, a follower of all that was good.
Curt Gowdy, the voice of the Red Sox, spoke next, saying, His athletic feats were golden and shining, and so was Harry personally. Gowdy nearly broke down and cried during the radio broadcast. Ted Williams said in his biography that he cried on the field that day. Mel Parnell said later, The ballclub sent Frank Sullivan back for his funeral, and Sullivan said it was one of the saddest things he had ever seen. People were in the streets with tears coming down their eyes.
An estimated 10,000 people had filed past Harry's body the evening before, as hundreds of Little Leaguers in uniform stood outside St. Georges. Representing the Red Sox at the funeral, besides Sullivan, were Manager Mike Higgins, GM Joe Cronin, Assistant GM Dick O'Connell, scout Neil Mahoney, secretary Helen Trank and several others from the front office. Six of his friends from Lynn acted as pallbearers. Nearly 20,000 people lined the silent streets in the mile between the church and Pine Grove Cemetery. It took nine cars to carry the flowers, which came from everyone from teammates like Williams and Zauchin, to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the Marines at Camp LeJeune, down to the Everett Pony League.