Why you should care
The pressure was intense, but she persevered.
In the sixth inning against the Sioux Falls Canaries, the 23-year-old lefty pitcher for the St. Paul Saints, an independent minor league baseball team, headed for the mound … and into history.
Facing off against three batters on May 31, 1997, this pitcher wasn’t making the most exciting debut. Except for one small detail: Ila Borders was the first female pitcher to grace the diamond in integrated men’s professional baseball.
Back then, all professional sports were dominated by men. Women’s soccer had only made its Olympic debut the year before, and the WNBA’s inaugural season began weeks after Borders threw her debut professional pitch. It would be another 11 years before Danica Patrick would become the first woman to win an IndyCar race. The first female to win an athletic scholarship was a golfer in 1973, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s when a woman — yep, Borders — finally won a scholarship to play men’s collegiate baseball. Women had been officially banned from professional baseball in 1931 by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of Major League Baseball. He ruled them out after a 17-year-old girl struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game.
Women would get mad at me because they thought I needed to be more in a feminist role. That just wasn’t my agenda. I just wanted to go play baseball.
Ila Borders, Pitcher for St. Paul Saints
Borders’ long walk to the mound that day was a big first step. But as any toddler will attest, not all first steps go well. She hit the first batter she faced; later she balked, giving up three earned runs without recording an out before being yanked. Even though it was an independent league game against the Canaries — and despite her being paid just $750 a month — the pressure was intense.
“I was getting calls from women in sports saying that if I go out there and fail that I am failing all women,” Borders recalls. “That was a real heavy burden.” All the reluctant feminist wanted was to play ball. “Women would get mad at me because they thought I needed to be more in a feminist role. That just wasn’t my agenda. I just wanted to go play baseball.”
Her father had pitched in the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system, and from a young age, he taught his daughter the game. She was a natural, developing into a crafty pitcher with a low-80s fastball and off-speed pitches — a curveball, a changeup, even a screwball — that she threw with accuracy. She never saw herself as a symbol of gender equality, and that was something that endeared her to college teammates and coaches.
“I thought she was very courageous,” says Tim Fortugno, a New York Mets scout who was Borders’ pitching coach at Southern California College (now Vanguard University of Southern California). All he saw was a left-handed pitcher, not her gender. “But I knew what she was up against.”
The way she fit into the all-male locker rooms in the minor leagues was the same way she fit in at college: She was just like everyone else — a ballplayer who wanted to play in the big leagues. “My dream was their dream, and that’s how I won a lot of my teammates over,” says Borders, now a firefighter in Oregon.
That didn’t meant it was easy. There was locker room jealousy when Sports Illustrated and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno featured her. Worse were the death-threat letters. And then there was the personal side: Borders was gay. But she feared that revealing her sexuality would end her baseball career, so she hid it. The media exposure — and the fear of being outed — eventually became too much. Borders had hoped for a spring-training invitation after posting a 1.67 ERA in 15 games for a minor-league team in Wisconsin. When it didn’t come, she retired, telling people she just couldn’t live on $1,300 a month.
Yet, in terms of a legacy, Borders opened the floodgates. Women’s sports have exploded. Some 375,000 girls a year now play high school softball, and between 1,000 and 1,500 a year play high school baseball. The St. Paul Saints will be honoring Borders at a game later this month, where she’ll be on hand to offer a youth baseball clinic and sign her new book, Making My Pitch (University of Nebraska Press). The team is even giving out Ila Borders bobbleheads.
“You can draw a line from Ila Borders to Mo’ne Davis,” the first African-American teenager to play in the Little League World Series, says Dr. Marjorie Snyder, senior director of research and programs for the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Baseball is often called the national pastime, but women have been shut out … until recently.” Borders helped turn the tide. “She’s one of many pioneers in sport who have cumulatively helped move that needle so women have different expectations today,” Snyder says.
Despite her historic role, Borders is fine not being in the spotlight. She only wrote her book because she wanted other girls to hear her story. “I was living a hidden life,” Borders says. She gave up opportunities to coach men’s professional baseball for fear of being outed in the press. “I thought if I was exposed that baseball would be taken away from me, so I moved into the shadows.”
Baseball remains a passion: Borders travels to Japan every year to coach youth clinics. And, more importantly, she has grown comfortable just being herself.