Next week is Agganis Week in the City of Lynn.
From Sunday through next Thursday night, there will be at least one athletic event that commemorates the life and legacy of Harry Agganis, who is, by a large consensus, the greatest athlete ever from this city. Perhaps the only true yardstick for making such a statement, considering eras, sports, and statistics, is word of mouth and the naked eye.
At the end of the last century, The Item conducted a poll to find out once and for all who the area’s best athlete from the 20th century was. And the answer was, hands down, Aristotle George Agganis, youngest of Georgios and Georgia Agganis’ seven children.
Aristotle became Harry because his mother shortened his first name to “Ari,” which ultimately became Harry.
He was born in 1929 and as early as junior high, those who saw him playing at places such as Barry Park (he grew up on Waterhill Street, not far from where Old Neighborhood is now, which in and of itself is a touch of symmetry) said it was like watching a man playing with boys. He became the most celebrated athlete to come out of Classical High, and then put Boston University on the map for football during his time there.
Although he could have played football (he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns), Agganis chose baseball and the Boston Red Sox for several reasons. The biggest one was that his mother was recently-widowed, and he wanted to be close to her.
Baseball was far from his best sport, but Agganis embraced the challenge. It wasn’t a smooth ride, as he had the same problems many rookies had with Major League pitching — he had trouble hitting it consistently.
Finally, by June of 1955, he was the team’s starting first baseman and was hitting over .300.
Everything seemed to be trending upward until Agganis was stuck with a bronchial infection and admitted to Sancta Maria Hospital (the same facility where Tony Conigliaro was taken when he was felled by a Jack Hamilton fastball 12 years later). He tried to return to the lineup, but it was apparently too soon. He relapsed and was readmitted to the hospital.
On June 27, quite suddenly, he took a dramatic turn for the worse and died of a pulmonary embolism. His funeral is still the largest in the history of Lynn, and one of the many kids who lined the streets to view the procession was 12-year-old Frank Carey, who later achieved baseball fame by becoming the winningest high school coach in state history.
Passing from life to legend in an instant is not uncommon with people who have met untimely deaths. But in Agganis’ case, the notoriety is deserved. By any yardstick, he was not only a special athlete, but a special person who was as good a man as he was an athlete.
The phenomenon was even bigger because Agganis was to Greek-American athletes what Joe DiMaggio was to Italians. He was their standard-bearer. Indeed, his nickname was “the Golden Greek.”
Upon his death, and at the behest of Attorney Charles Demakis, a prominent member of the Greek-American community in Lynn, The Item, along with the Red Sox, started the Agganis Scholarship Foundation.
In the 63 years since Agganis’ death, the foundation has awarded grants totalling $1,955,000 to 964 scholar-athletes.
This money is raised in a variety of ways, but the principal fundraising arms of the foundations are the games played in Agganis’ name every June. This year, the week of games runs from June 24-28.
The week begins Sunday with an awards ceremony that honors all the participating athletes at 10 a.m. at Manning Field. The 22nd softball game follows at noon at Fraser Field, with the 24th baseball game at 2. The action shifts to the Tony Conigliaro Gym at St. Mary’s the next night for the 14th girls basketball game (6), followed by the boys at 7:15.
The rest of the action is at Manning Field. Tuesday, June 26, it’s boys soccer (5:30) followed by girls (7) and the following night girls lacrosse will face off at 5:30, followed by boys at 7.
Finally, on Thursday, June 28, the 57th Agganis football game will kick off at Manning.
Sixty-three years ago, when Agganis died, the football game served as the principal fundraiser for the foundation. Over the years, the inclusion of the other sports has turned Agganis Week into a celebration of his life and his legacy. He was already one of those rare athletes who was judged able to compete in two professional sports — long before even Dave DeBusschere, Gene Conley, Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. There’s no telling how much further he could have gone.
Regardless, he was, and is, Lynn’s legend.