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Borders, Ila

Ila Borders

1975-

American baseball player

The pitcher Ila Borders broke baseball's gender barrier in 1997, when she became the first woman to

pitch in the men's minor leagues. Accomplishing a goal she had set since girlhood, Borders pitched her first professional game, for the Northern League's St. Paul Saints, on May 31, 1997. In her three years in the minor leagues, earning from $700 to $1,000 a month, Borders played for the St. Paul Saints, the Duluth-Superior Dukes, the Madison Black Wolf, and the Zion Pioneerzz. She had her share of victoriesincluding 12 scoreless innings during her 1998 season with the Dukesand her share of defeats. When she retired in 2000, Borders left an important legacy as baseball's first professional female player, and as a hero and role model for other women who aspire to play the men's sport.

Ila Borders was born on February 18, 1975, in Downey, California. One of four children, she was raised in La Miranda, a suburb of Los Angeles. Her father, Phil, was a former minor league baseball player who painted cars; her mother ran a preschool. Baseball was a family pastime that grew into a passion for the little girl. "Every Saturday and Sunday, from the time I was 5, my whole family would play ball," Borders told Larry Oakes of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "My dad basically taught me everything: the mental part, the control, how to call a game, how to take care of my arm."

Dreamed of Pitching Professionally

When ten-year-old Borders announced her goal of becoming a professional baseball player, her father only encouraged her. With his help, she joined a local boys' Little League. It was here that Borders first faced resistance to crossing baseball's gender barrier. She felt that the Little League tried to keep her out by changing the sign-up times. Borders managed to join nevertheless, and in her first game she proved her mettle by striking out the first six batters.

It was Phil Borders who encouraged his daughter to play in a men's semipro league, and who forged an ID so the 14-year-old girl could play with men in their 20s. In junior high school, she sued for the right to play with the boys. She also played in high school, though she had to switch schools when one coach wouldn't let her join the boys' team. Upon graduating from high school at Whittier Christian College, Borders became the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship.

Borders attended Southern California College (SCC), a small Christian college in Costa Mesa, on a baseball scholarship from 1994 to 1996. Playing for the SCC Vanguards, she became the first woman to pitch, and to win, in a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) game. The five-foot-ten player pitched a 70-mile-per-hour fastball, lagging a little behind other college pitchers' speeds. She slowly gained more speed, but compensated in the meantime with changeups and curveballs. But improving her game was not the only challenge; Borders also faced sexism and discrimination, especially from opposing teams. "I've been spit on, had beer thrown on me and been sworn at, and was hit 11 times out of 11 at bats while in college," she told Seattle Times. Meanwhile, the sports media had gotten wind of the ponytailed pitcher's goal to play professional baseball, and journalists began following her unusual career with fascination. When throngs of journalists showed up at her games, she warned them to treat her as a pitcher first, and not as a female.

In her final year of college, Borders left SCC because she felt her teammates did not support her. She completed her degree at Whittier College, where she became the first woman to pitch in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III baseball. Borders received her bachelor's degree in kinesics, the study of the body's movements. Later she would pursue a master's degree that would qualify her for a career in either sports psychology or sports management.

Played in Men's Minor League

Just out of college, Borders reached her goal of playing professional baseball. In 1997 the St. Paul Saints invited the 22-year-old player to try out. Her 80-mile-per-hour fastball fell short of the league's average by five or six miles-per-hour, but the Saints took a chance, making Borders the first woman pitcher to sign with a men's minor league team. In her rookie year she participated in only seven games for the Saints, and was brought in mainly as a relief pitcher. As a lefty, she was occasionally called in as a foil for left-handed batters. She ended her first season with a 7.5 earned-run average (ERA) and a 0-0 record. "If I'm out to prove anything to the world, it's not that a female can do it, but that I can do itme," she told Oakes. "I'm not out her to educate anybody; I'm out here because I love the game and want to get ahead."

On June 25, 1997, the Saints traded Borders to the Duluth-Superior Dukes. In her first year, the Dukes called her in for only 13 games. Her ERA rose to 8.53, and many sports critics thought the Dukes would not keep her. "There were pitchers with worse statistics," Borders told Neal Karlen of the New York Times. "I wasn't embarrassed."

During the 1998 season Borders would make some strides. On July 9 she was brought in for the first time as the starting pitcher. On July 24 she became the first female pitcher to win a men's minor league game. While she had drawn fans all along, the size of these crowds began to increase, as did the media parade that followed her. Among those running stories on Borders were the New York Times and Newsweek magazine, while television's 60 Minutes and the Tonight show clamored for interviews. The buzz about Borders was mostly positive, but there were exceptions. Some baseball managers questioned whether the female player had been chosen for her pitching ability or as a crowd-drawing novelty. Yet Borders used such critiques as provocation to improve. By August of 1998 she had lowered her ERA to 4.88.

Chronology

1975 Born on February 18 in Downey, California
mid-1980s Pitches for boys' Little League baseball teams
1989 Plays with men's semipro league
1994 Attends Southern California College on a baseball scholarship; pitches for the SCC Vanguards
1996 Transfers to Whittier Christian College; pitches for team
1997 Graduates from Whittier Christian College with degree in kinesics
1997 Pitches for minor league baseball team, the St. Paul Saints
1997 Traded to Duluth-Superior Dukes
1998 Becomes first female pitcher to win a game (July 24)
1999 Traded to the Madison Black Wolf
2000 Traded to the Zion (Utah) Pioneerzz
2000 Retires from baseball at age 26

After starting the 1999 season with Duluth, Borders was traded to the Madison Black Wolf on June 10. On June 17 she pitched her second winning game in the minor leagues. She would finish the year with her best professional performance yet, with a season record of 1-0 and an ERA of 3.64. Yet the following season was not as successful for Borders. Traded to the Western League's Zion Pioneerzz, she appeared in only five games, and her ERA climbed to 9.35. In her final game, against the Feather River Mudcats, she gave up five hits and three runs. After the game, she told Mike Little-wood, the Pioneerzz's manager, that she would call it quits. "She said she thought she had her best stuff and still got hit hard," Littlewood told the Associated Press as reported on the Baseball Glory Web site. "She said she wanted to go in another direction."

On June 30, 2000, 26-year-old Borders announced her retirement from professional baseball. After she retired in the summer of 2000, Borders returned to her native California. She told the press that she would pursue a career in broadcasting, teaching, or coaching. After widespread media coverage of her retirement at age 26, Borders disappeared from the press spotlight. Her jersey, mitt, and baseball from her first minor league baseball game remain on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Awards and Accomplishments

1994 First woman to win a baseball scholarship, Southern California College
1997 First woman to make a minor league baseball team
1998 First female pitcher to win a minor league baseball game

Although she had dreamed of pitching in the major leagues, she was able to appreciate how far she had come. "I'll look back and say I did something nobody ever did," she told the Seattle Times. "I'm proud of that. I wasn't out to prove women's rights or anything. I love baseball."

FURTHER INFORMATION

Periodicals

Ardell, Jean Hastings. "On a Dream and a Prayer." Sporting News (April 4, 1994): 8.

Charland, William. "A Pitcher Defies Baseball's Gender Borders." Christian Science Monitor (August 31, 1999): 4.

Hughes, John. "Female Prospect Keeps Making Her Pitch." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 23, 1998): 9.

Karlen, Neal. "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." New York Times (September 6, 1998): 6.

Oakes, Larry. "Borders Continues Crashing Barriers." (Minneapolis) Star Tribune (August 6, 1998): 1C.

Perry, Dwight. "Pioneering Pitcher Crossed the Gender Border." Seattle Times (July 3, 2000): D2.

Other

Ardell, Jean Hastings. "Ila Borders Retires." Baseball Glory.com. http://www.baseballglory.com/History%20of%20Borders.html (November 26, 2002).

Sketch by Wendy Kagan

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