I grew up listening to, among other things, stories about all the great athletes who came out of Massachusetts. There is a certain pride people take when someone successful comes from their area of the world and folks in Massachusetts tend to take that pride to a completely different level. Someone who grew up in Revere in the 1950s and ’60s might have never met Tony Conigliaro but if you asked them today about him you’d get stories that sounded like the person was his best friend. (I grew up in Revere in the 1970s and 80s and I can attest that this is true.) We embrace these people and their success to a level that is probably uncomfortable for them, but that’s the deal, right? They do something deemed as great and we adore them for it.
We on the North Shore didn’t just have Tony Conigliaro to crow about. When I was growing up, people told stories about Harry Agganis so incredible that they made him sound like a folk hero along the lines of Paul Bunyan. The gist of every Agganis story was that he was the most incredible athlete to ever come around and that on top of being an amazing football player and a great baseball player; he was also a wonderful guy who made the most important decisions of his life based on how they would affect his family. Handsome, talented, good to his mother and a local boy…there was nothing there not to love.
The rest of the story of Harry Agganis usually came in hushed tones. “He died so young!” “No one really knows why he died!” And of course the inevitable, “If he had lived he probably would have brought the World Series back to Boston!”
I never really learned much of substance about Harry. Great athlete, good guy, died too young. It was sad but it also made him seem more imaginary than real. How could someone be such a remarkable all-around athlete and die mysteriously when he was just 26 years old? Harry Agganis died in 1955. He didn’t get a biopic made about him…heck it took over fifty years before anyone made a documentary about him…but he left an amazing legacy. Not long after he died, the Agganis Foundation was founded. According to the website:
…The Agganis Foundation was started by the Boston Red Sox, (Lynn) Daily Item newspaper and Harold O. Zimman, who was a mentor of Agganis. Elmo Benedetto, then the athletic director for the Lynn Public Schools, came on board shortly thereafter and the first Agganis All-Star Football Classic was played in 1956.
To this day, the foundation awards scholarships on its own and also in conjunction with the Yawkey Foundation. A graduate of Boston University (being the athlete he was, he had 75 offers of scholarships and his choice of colleges to attend and he chose B.U. because it was close to home…and his mother), the school dedicated the Agganis Arena in 2004, cementing the name Agganis into the collective memories of the people of Massachusetts…even if these days many aren’t sure why they should recognize it.
I still live on the North Shore and while there are plenty of “old timers” who remember Harry there are few younger people who do. This happens, and I realize that. Time passes and flashier, supposedly more exciting athletes come up and the past disappears much too quickly. But Harry Agganis’ story is certainly one that should be remembered. Not only because of how he lived but also because of how he died.
Recently, I was lent a copy of the documentary Agganis: Golden Greek, Excellence to the End. A film that debuted in Boston this past November to such a large crowd that they needed to add an additional theater to screen the film for everyone who wanted to attend. It was written and narrated by Clark Booth, a name familiar to Boston sports fans from his tenure as a local sports reporter, and produced in conjunction with the Agganis family (Harry’s grandnephew Greg Agganis is the Executive Producer). It’s a wonderful account of Harry’s entire sports career, especially his triumphs in football at Lynn Classical High School and Boston University. News clippings, archival footage, and personal interviews with some of Harry’s relatives, classmates and teammates, are the highlights of the two-hour film. Hearing the stories about him were reminiscent of fables but getting to see actual proof of his talent was mind-blowing. To be able to see the amazing athlete he really was and hear about what a good person he was makes the story of his death even harder to sit through.
The film goes into great detail about Harry’s final weeks. As a child, Harry was stricken with bronchitis and while in college he often fought bouts of the cold and the flu and many hypothesize that those issues contributed to the pulmonary embolism that ended up killing him. But what they discuss in the final act of Agganis: Golden Greek, Excellence to the End made my blood boil. In May of 1955, during his second year with the Red Sox, Harry was hospitalized with pneumonia. After ten days in the hospital, he returned to the team only to be sent back to the hospital a week later. Along with the pneumonia, he was diagnosed with phlebitis and the combination kept him in the Santa Maria Hospital in Cambridge. This was the hospital the Red Sox always sent their players to. In spite of being in the hospital, his health continued to decline and the Red Sox never considered sending Harry to the superior Mass General Hospital to find out why he wasn’t getting any better. A doctor who had been treating him ended up being let go by Joe Cronin, who in 1955 was the General Manager of the Red Sox, and even though there were hard feelings, after this doctor visited Harry on his own time he put aside those hard feelings and called Cronin to tell him Harry needed surgery or he’d probably die from a blood clot. To this day, no one knows how Cronin processed this information but he didn’t get Harry the surgery that would have most likely saved his life (even though, in 1955, it would have possibly ended his career).
I’m spiteful. I’m watching this documentary and the entire time they’re discussing Harry’s death, I’m wishing bad things on Joe Cronin. It just seems like it was so needless. You have a hospital like Mass General just miles away and you leave him in your private hospital to get sicker and, eventually, die at 26 years old. I get mad all over again just typing this. I watched the DVD with my parents and my father remarked that it would probably have saved his life had he chosen to play professional football instead of going to the Red Sox. Who knows if that is true…but it sure feels true.
I’m a sucker for sports films, especially documentaries, and because of the subject matter of this one I’m particularly biased I suppose, but there really are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than learning about what a remarkable man Harry Agganis was and what an ultimately tragic life he lead.