Lefthander Ila Borders became the first woman to earn a scholarship for men’s baseball when she joined Southern California College in 1994. She went on to pitch four seasons in men’s professional baseball, in the independent Northern and Western leagues. (Photo by J.D. Cuban/Allsport/Getty Images)
On the baseball diamond, Ila Borders never set out to be a trailblazer.
She wanted to be a baseball player. A keep-your-head-down, do-the-work-and-stay-out-of-the-spotlight baseball player. It was never going to happen that way.
The spotlight kept finding her. She was the first woman to earn a college scholarship for men’s baseball, at Southern California College (now known as Vanguard University). The first to get a collegiate win. And then after four years pitching in college, she became the first woman to play in a professional men’s baseball league since the 1950s.
Borders ended up playing for three different teams in the Northern League, which at the time was the top independent league in baseball. She finished her career in the soon-to-be defunct Western League in 2000.
Overall, Borders went 2-4, 6.75 in 101.1 innings, but her best season by far was 1999, when she went 1-0, 3.63 and allowed 33 hits in 32.1 innings. Considering the level at which she was playing (the Northern League included ex-big leaguers and future big leaguers), it is the best year any woman has ever put together in pro ball.
But that success ended up being her undoing. That offseason she believed she was going to get a shot at affiliated ball—just an invitation to spring training. But it was a shot, and it was the dream she’d had for years.
“I was talking to the Reds and (owner) Marge Schott said, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this.’ And then right before (2000 spring training) they said, ‘We’re not going to do it because we’re already getting a lot of media attention about it. We don’t want it to be a distraction.’ ”
Borders can’t help but wonder how her situation would be today, pointing to the cavalcade of fans following Tim Tebow around minor league spring training that was seen as an asset.
“They’d probably love (the attention) now,” she said. “Back then it was a no-no.”
After realizing her dream at a shot in affiliated ball was not going to happen, Borders followed up her best season in pro baseball with her worst. She was cut in spring training, opted to head to the Western League and was out of baseball by the end of 2000.
“When that happened, I let that defeat me. That was totally my fault,” she said.
Since then, Borders has worked as a firefighter, but in recent years, she has gotten back into the game. She just wrote a book “Making My Pitch,” which came out this year. She has helped with Baseball For All, an organization that works to help girls play baseball.
She also began to do some bird-dog scouting for the Major League Scouting Bureau in the Northwest, and she’s working with the USA Baseball Women’s National Team as a pitching coach.
Borders’ chance at pitching in affiliated ball is long past, but her days on the mound may not be finished. She recently got back on the mound with the goal of pitching for the Women’s National Team in next year’s World Cup. She will have to make the team, but the 42-year-old said she was recently up to 78 mph, which is just a few ticks lower than her peak velocity.
When Borders was pitching in the 1990s, there was no Women’s National Team. Now two decades later, she may get her shot.