Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

William and Mary’s Moonlight Graham

In Baseball, William & Mary on August 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Some colleges could field an entire baseball team with major league alumni. William and Mary could barely fill a starting rotation. But one of baseball’s rarer stories spent his springs playing baseball in Williamsburg. Owen Kahn is the Moonlight Graham you’ve never heard of.

The Boston Braves didn’t record attendance for the May 24, 1930 game against the Brooklyn Robins, or if they did, that number has been lost. The box score recorded a 5-2 Robins victory over the Braves. It recorded a “W” for Ray Phelps and an “L” for Bob Smith. It recorded a single by Al Lopez, a single for George Sisler and an 0-fer for Rabbit Maranville. And for the only time, the box score recorded the name of Owen Kahn.

Owen Kahn was a unique kind of ballplayer — the Moonlight Graham kind. He had a taste of the majors. He even played in a game. But once Kahn left the field after that game, he never came back. Kahn and Graham aren’t alone in the one-and-done category of baseball history, but one of their legacies clearly outshines the other. One appears as a character in a beloved film — the other appears only in antiquated issues of The Flat Hat.

Owen Kahn was a Virginia boy. He was born on a lazy June day in Richmond in 1905. The Richmond of Kahn’s childhood had recovered from the destruction caused by the Civil War four decades previously and become a modern metropolis, but it remained a southern city with long, meandering summers and hot July afternoons perfect for swimming in the James River or playing games in the streets. Kahn grew up in this city, but when he was 18, he had to go to college. He stayed close to home, enrolling at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Virginia was in his blood, and he wouldn’t let that change.

Kahn excelled as an athlete at William and Mary. He had been an all-state forward in high school and had enough promise as a basketball player to be a starter for the 1924 season. But his true sport was baseball. Those early 1920s Flat Hat pages are filled with stories about Kahn’s athletic feats on the baseball diamond. In the best game of his college career, a 1925 game versus Wake Forest University, Kahn hit two home runs and a triple in a 5-4 William and Mary victory. One year later, Mike Smith became the first William and Mary ballplayer to play in the majors. Kahn was as good of a player as Smith — maybe even better. He hit over .400 in 1925. The question wasn’t if Kahn would join his former teammate in the big leagues, but when.

Kahn left William and Mary in 1929 to focus on becoming a major league ballplayer. He had played a bit of minor league ball while in college, initially with the Marshalltown Ansons of the Mississippi Valley League. When the Ansons folded, the Boston Braves purchased Kahn’s contract and sent him to play with the Manchester Blue Sox of the New England League. He was a long way from Richmond, but baseball was calling him north, and when baseball called, you listened.

The Braves called Kahn up to the big league club in May 1930. His career lasted all of a day — that May 24 game against the Brooklyn Robins. Kahn was primarily a third baseman, but the Braves already had a solid man at the hot corner in Red Rollings. Rollings was penciled into the starting lineup, while Kahn found a seat on the bench.

From his seat in the home dugout, Kahn had an excellent view of first base, and manning first base for the Braves that day was George Sisler. Had there been a baseball Hall of Fame in 1930, Sisler’s name would have been near the top of the list for future members. But the hall at Cooperstown was still nine years away. On this day, Sisler was merely a 37-year-old first baseman with the best years of his career behind him.

By the seventh inning, the Braves were down 1-0. Sisler came to bat that inning, and wrung a little bit of speed out of his 37-year-old legs, stretching a hit to the outfield into a triple. But the Braves needed to score, and a fresh player was more likely to score on a sacrifice fly than a winded 37-year-old. Kahn came in to pinch run for Sisler. Two batters later, Randy Moore tattooed a hit to right field and Kahn came around to score, knotting the game up at 1-1. The Braves replaced Kahn in the field with Billy Rhiel in the eighth. The Robins went on to win the game 5-2 in 11 innings, but Kahn had made the most of his debut. A pinch running appearance and a run scored — not bad for a day’s work.

But that day’s work was all Kahn would ever get. On June 9, the Braves sold Kahn’s contract to the Pittsfield Hillies of the Eastern League, where he hit .310 with two home runs in 113 at bats. Kahn spent all of 1931 with the Norfolk Tars. After sitting out the 1932 season, he tried to latch on with the Durham Bulls, and then the Wilmington Pirates. But major league clubs never showed any interest in him, and after 1933, Kahn retired from baseball.

Kahn’s major league dreams never fully materialized, but Richmond was always there. After his retirement, Kahn returned to his hometown and began a career as an examiner for the Virginia department of Taxation. Except for his service in the United States Navy during World War II, Kahn never strayed far from Richmond, living in the city until his death in 1981. Kahn will never become a household name. His legacy will likely remain confined to the pages of The Flat Hat, yellowing and fading with each year. But baseball is a meticulous record keeper, and box scores have long memories. People may have forgotten, but one box score remembers that, for one day, Owen Kahn was a major league baseball player.

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