From the Desk of Jean Ardell: Writing Ila Borders’ Story

The following contribution comes from Jean Hastings Ardell, co-author of Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey (April 2017). Making My Pitch tells the story of Ila Jane Borders, the first woman to win a men’s professional baseball game. Raw, open, and funny at times, her story encompasses the loneliness of a groundbreaking pioneer who experienced grave personal loss. Ardell is the author of Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime.

JeanArdellThere were others before her. I understood this from researching the history of women who strove to play baseball from the very moment the game took hold of the American psyche more than 150 years ago. Mostly the women were amateurs, or played in the pros for an inning or a game or two. Three women played in the waning years of the Negro Leagues. But their efforts were always dismissed as a lark, a publicity stunt. Left-hander Ila Jane Borders had made clear she wanted more: She wanted a career in professional men’s baseball. So I learned one February morning in 1994 when I picked up the local newspaper and read that she was to pitch for the men’s baseball team at Southern California College that afternoon.

Amid the media frenzy that had coalesced around Borders that day, I sat in the bleachers and watched her pitch a 12-1 complete-game win. It was a galvanizing experience and as I stood with the other reporters behind second base for the post-game interview, I remember thinking that I wanted to follow her story for as long as it went. I got to know Borders, wrote several articles about her and presented my research on her career at various academic sports history conferences as she pitched through four seasons of men’s varsity ball in college and signed with Mike Veeck’s St. Paul Saints in the independent Northern League. She played three and a half seasons in men’s professional baseball, and while she didn’t reach her goal of making it to the majors, she put the lie to the idea that a woman could not compete in pro ball.

Along the way, I got to know Borders and her family. I interviewed her coaches, from Little League through the Northern League. I happened to be in town when the Duluth-Superior Dukes traded her to the Madison Black Wolf and offered to drive her to her new club in Wisconsin.

“When you’re ready,” I’d often tell her, “your story deserves to be told in a book.” We tried to begin just after her career ended in 2000, but it was too soon, her disappointment too deep to revisit the challenges she faced along the way. There was another obstacle, too. Borders had always wanted to serve as the all-American role model to the girls who sought to go after their dreams, but she had a conflict. She was both a closeted gay and a Christian who had grown up in the Southern Baptist Church. How was that going to play in the media? Wanting to live more authentically, Borders had been edging out of the closet since turning thirty. But it’s one thing to tell one’s family and friends. It’s a whole other thing to put the truth of one’s sexual orientation into print for the world to see–and judge.

I told Borders that it had to be her call but in my opinion an honest telling of her story would inspire many people. I told her that at the Presbyterian Church I attended, members of the LGBT community were welcomed as deacons and elders and gave courage to the whole congregation. “Besides,” I said, “telling the truths you know in a memoir is important.” And so she has. It has taken twenty-three years from the day I watched her pitch her first college game to the arrival of Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey in print. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with her.

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