Ila Borders walks with baseball’s greats

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

The Society for American Baseball Research has nominated a former Saint Paul Saint for a new award honoring women in baseball.

SABR’s Women in Baseball Committee has made Ila Borders one of nine nominees for the Dorothy Seymour Mills Award, named for the baseball historian whose name on a three-volume work carried only her husband’s name even though she researched and wrote much of it.

Borders was one of the first female starting pitchers on a professional baseball league team (women played in the Negro League) when she signed with the Saints in 1997. I wrote about her in 2017 when she returned to Duluth for a night in her honor. She was traded by the Saints to the Duluth-Superior Dukes, who won their only Northern League title with her on the roster.

“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.”

Borders, now 44, was also the first woman to earn a full scholarship to play baseball on a men’s collegiate team. She a firefighter in Oregon.

Also nominated for the award:

  • The late Penny Marshall, who directed the baseball movie “A League of Their Own”
  • Amanda Clement, the South Dakota woman who was the first woman paid to umpire a baseball game
  • Lillian Hopkins, said to be one of the top three female baseball fans in history
  • Effa Manley, who owned the Newark Eagles of the Negro League
  • Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow
  • Justine Siegal, the first female coach in Major League Baseball
  • Janet Marie Smith, whose ballpark designs have changed the game
  • Connie Wisniewski, an All-Star with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League who pitched 40 complete games in 1946