The following is an excerpt from Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey (Nebraska, 2017) by Ila Jane Borders with Jean Hastings Ardell. Ila Jane Borders is the first woman to win a men’s professional baseball game. She has been honored twice at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and was inducted in 2003 into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals. Jean Hastings Ardell is the author of Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime.
Beginning today, Borders will coaching one of eight teams in the inaugural Trailblazer Series, “a first-of-its-kind girls baseball tournament hosted in conjunction with Jackie Robinson Day.” You can learn more about the tournament at MLB.com. In honor of the tournament, we’re sharing a look at Borders’ own baseball beginnings.
From Chapter 1
Beginnings: Little League
1980, LA MIRADA, CALIFORNIA. BEGINNINGS. The first time I left home for baseball, I was about five years old. It was a short trip. When you walked into our front yard you saw that where other families had a garden, Dad had staked out a baseball diamond. First base was a tree with an old tire hanging from a branch, where we liked to swing when we weren’t playing ball. Second base was the lemon tree; and another tree served as third. To be safe you had to grab the tree trunks and hold on (like the stakes used in the nineteenth- century game of town ball). But home plate was real—I don’t know where Dad found it—with six-inch metal spikes that he hammered into the ground, like he meant it to stay there forever.
We lived in La Mirada, a hilly suburb southeast of Los Angeles that was paradise for kids’ sports. All the kids in the neighborhood showed up to play ball in our yard. We’d play until it was dark, and sometimes the next morning you would see aluminum bats and leather mitts scattered on our grass, left out from yesterday’s game. If we got hungry we grabbed an instant snack: the best tangerines you’ve ever tasted from one of the trees in our yard. In our family, we kids were not allowed to stay indoors unless it was raining— and hey, it hardly ever rains in Southern California.
Our porch was littered with empty Budweiser cans, usually crushed, as if Dad had squeezed out the last drop of brew. When he first courted Mom, he arrived to pick her up in a red Corvette. Dad sat there, waiting for her to come out of the house and jump in. This had concerned Mom’s conservative parents, as she was a very naïve seventeen, and so they walked her out to the car. When they looked into the Corvette, I expect that they saw the stuff of a semipro ballplayer: gym bag, sweaty towels, faded baseball caps, and empty beer cans.
Dad was my first and best baseball coach. I think the idea to help me develop my skills began early: when I was an infant, he noticed that I was struggling to feed myself with a spoon—until I picked up the spoon with the other hand, my left hand. Dad said that he immediately thought, Well, left-handed pitchers don’t grow on trees. After I broke a few windows batting on our front-yard diamond, he started taking me to Behringer Athletic Park to work on the fundamentals. Could not have cared less that I was a girl—he worked on my pitching and hitting and fielding as if I were headed to the major leagues. So it felt like a natural move from our front- yard field onto an organized team. I began playing Little Miss Softball at age six and did well. In my second season I was invited to play on an all-star traveling team. That meant weekend tournaments and playing year-round. Being on the field became my second home, but something was missing, and I knew what it was.
When I was eight years old, Dad took me to a ball game at Dodger Stadium. I saw one of the African American players—I want to say it was Dusty Baker, the Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder in 1983—go long, and it sparked something in me. That same summer I was tossing a baseball around in our front yard when I looked—I mean really looked—at the ball in my hand. It was smaller and harder than the one we used in girls’ softball. Besides, pitching underhand, like we did in softball, had never felt quite right. I wanted to pitch overhand, like they did in the big leagues. At night I began to dream of playing in the major leagues. And so began my campaign with Dad to put me into baseball so I could pitch. Finally he said, “Okay. But if you’re going to play with the boys, you are going to wear your hair long, so everyone knows you’re a girl.”