First pitcher in men’s league, Ila Borders returns to Duluth

St. Paul Saints Pitcher Ila Borders joins her teammates in stretches prior to the regular-season opener between the Saints and the Sioux Falls Canaries on Friday, May 30, 1997, in Sioux Falls, S.D. Jim Mone | Associated Press

Surely on a list of the most interesting people who ever landed in flyover country, Ila Borders must rank pretty high. She was one of the first women on a professional baseball team (women played in the Negro Leagues) when she signed with the St. Paul Saints in ’97.

The Saints made her a Duluth story instead of a Twin Cities story, however, when it traded her to the Duluth-Superior Dukes, for whom she helped win the team’s only Northern League title.

The Saints had gotten what they wanted out of Borders — publicity — and didn’t keep her around long, but she became a beloved part of Duluth history 20 years ago.

Saint Paul Saints pitcher Ila Borders signs autographs in Sioux Falls in 1997. Jim Mone | Associated Press | File Yesterday, she made her return to the city. She’s a firefighter in Oregon now and last night was Emergency Services Night at Wade Stadium and Borders threw out the first pitch, lowered from the end of a fire truck’s ladder, the Duluth News Tribune reports.

“It wasn’t a cool time for women to play baseball, so I applaud people like Mike Veeck and Jim Wadley,” Borders said. “They took a huge risk on me. I would not have been able to realize any of my dreams without those guys.”

She says she didn’t care about breaking barriers, but that’s what she did.

She struggled in her short time with the Saints, she had an ERA over 30 when Duluth gave up on her in 1999 and sent her to the Madison Black Wolf, where manager “Dirty Al” Gallagher came up with a novel idea. She’d be a three-inning starter.

She became a lights-out pitcher, good enough that two Major League Baseball teams reportedly told her they’d invite her to spring training. But the invitations never came.

“They just told me flat-out that if I went there the media was going to be so intense that it was going to be taking away from the game and from the other players’ development,” she said last night.

“I don’t know about regrets because then I feel like if you go back and change those things, maybe you wouldn’t be who you are today,” Borders said. “And I’m very grateful because I’m in a really good place.”

Today the Duluth team will give away Ila Borders bobbleheads.