BY: Nathania Seales Oh
In Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey, Jean Hastings Ardell co-authors the deeply moving memoir of Ila Jane Borders, a woman shattering gender stereotypes in a male-dominated profession while navigating her secrecy, shame, and eventual acceptance of her sexual orientation.
Throughout the book, Ardell points to transformative moments of struggle in Borders’ life: as a child at home and in the church, as a young woman on the baseball field and in male locker rooms, and at a Christian university where she played before being signed to play professionally. There are moments of levity alongside anecdotes of profound loss and rejection that show the reader Borders’ path to authenticity and success.
Ardell has worked in Orange County, California as a freelance writer for nearly thirty years. While she has covered a variety of subjects, she always returns to baseball. Her first book, Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime, appeared in The L.A. Times bestsellers list. Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey was published in April 2017 and is a selection of the Junior Library Guild. Ardell lives in Laguna Beach with her husband, Dan Ardell, who played for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: How did the project, Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey, and the opportunity to work with Ila Borders land on your desk?
JEAN HASTINGS ARDELL: In February 1994, I was doing research on my first book, “Breaking into Baseball: Woman and the National Pastime” My desk was piled with clippings, interview transcripts, and images. One morning, I picked up the Orange Coast Daily Pilot and read that a young woman named Ila Borders was pitching for Southern California College in nearby Costa Mesa, California. I drove over to watch the game — Borders pitched a 12-1 complete-game victory—interviewed her afterward, and, thus, began a relationship that has endured to today.
TCR: Given today’s climate and conversation surrounding defined occupational gender roles, were there ways in which you and/or Borders felt an obligation to tell this story now?
JHA: As a baseball historian, I was aware that the climate and conversation regarding gender roles has been under discussion for many, many decades. In the 1800s, women were not always welcomed into the game, even as fans. Women of the late 1800s loved the idea of playing baseball, but the cultural “wisdom” of the day advised against it out of fear that women’s ability to bear children would be impaired and also out of concern that it would masculinize women. In the 1990s, there remained a cultural bias against women playing baseball. Softball is still seen as the default sport for girls.
TCR: This is your first project as a co-author. In which ways did your approach to writing this book differ from writing your first book, which you authored on your own?
JHA: I took a very different approach. For my first book, the idea to write comprehensively about women in baseball—to explore why women have so loved a game that tended to exclude them—arrived unbidden into my mind. So, I felt like I owned that story, and I wrote it very much as I saw fit. Working with Ila on her memoir called for a different approach. From that first day when I watched her pitch, I was intrigued by her and her dream of pitching professional baseball and wrote about her in The Sporting News and the L.A. Times, and presented aspects of my research about her at various academic baseball conferences. When it came time to begin work with her on the manuscript, I knew clearly that I wanted the narrative to be in her voice, not mine. (I have a bias against sportswriters who impose their own voices upon their subjects in biographies.) I supplemented a lot of the information in the book (background on women’s history in the game; accounts of games she pitched in; interviews with her coaches and teammates and family), but as much as possible, I sought to let Ila’s voice tell the story.
TCR: Borders shares some deeply personal elements of her life in this book, including coming to terms with her sexual orientation and family conflict. How would you describe the experience of writing such intimate details of someone else’s life?
JHA: I took the responsibility seriously to be accurate and true to Ila’s sensibilities about the telling of deeply personal information. I didn’t know for sure that she was a lesbian until we were well into the manuscript. By then, we knew and trusted one another. And for years, in various conversations we had, I had put it out to her my belief that God doesn’t consider homosexuality a deal breaker. Ila’s gay, and I’m straight, and we are both Christians; though she was raised in a fundamentalist church that considers homosexuality sinful, and I’m a member of a progressive church that embraces LGBTQs as ministers, elders, and deacons. By the time she told me she was gay (her preferred term), she was halfway out of the closet to her family and friends, but professionally, no. She worried that the news would ruin the book, that it wouldn’t be publishable. I told her if she chose to share the news that it would only improve the book. After all, this was a memoir, which makes it non-fiction, which makes it important to tell the truth. But it is one thing to tell your loved ones that you’re gay, it’s a whole other thing to put the details of that into a book before the whole world. I told her it was her decision as to how much to disclose. She decided to go all in. It was a transformational decision. The response by readers, both heterosexual and gay, has been marvelous. A baseball historian and friend who was familiar with the odyssey of this book over 23 years commented to me after hearing Ila speak how confident and relaxed she was. He said, “Writing this book has been good for her.” That’s what I had always hoped for.
TCR: How did you navigate staying true to the story without compromising boundaries that were not your own?
JHA: I managed to stay true to the story by reminding myself that it wasn’t all mine to tell. When it came to telling some of the hard truths—of her family, for example—I encouraged her to talk it over with her siblings and parents so that they understood why she was writing the book. A lot of our conversations didn’t make it into the book, and I’ve kept them to myself.
TCR: How did writing this story affect how you view yourself as a woman and your ideas about gender roles?
JHA: I have deep admiration for what Ila accomplished on the mound. Baseball can be an enervating game—day after day, inning after inning, you go out and compete. Ila put the lie to the old canard that a woman wasn’t strong enough or tough enough to endure the rigors of a baseball season. I love that. Though having grown up playing unorganized, unsupervised baseball as a girl, I’ve always thought that was the case. Working on this story confirmed my opinion of women’s capabilities.
TCR: At the beginning of the project, were there parameters, roles, and/or boundaries established between yourself and Borders? If so, what were they, and were they easily adhered to? If not, was there a point within the project that one or both of you realized their necessity?
JHA: We met with a well-regarded literary attorney, Jonathan Kirsch, who drew up the contract between us as co-authors and set out the expectations and responsibilities we each had. That helped a lot. Ila was to send me her recollections via emails, which I followed up with telephone and in-person conversations. I’d write up her words, shape them into the narrative, and send them back to her for her approval. She read every word of the manuscript prior to its publication. After the book’s publication, we later encountered a difference of opinion as to how to best publicize the book. She elected to sign with a talent manager, while I did not. That’s complicated the communications process as we market international book and film rights, but we both agree that copying each other, and our literary agent, Rob Wilson, is essential. And starting out, I kept an arm’s-length emotional distance between us, keeping in mind that I was a journalist writing about a subject. That evolved over the years to where there was much less distance between us. In the quest to get her story right and to tell it well, I felt the additional responsibility to do right by her as a human being. She’s often come to me for advice and has called me her second mom. But by the time this happened, we were on solid ground with regards to the book.
TCR: Were there any times throughout the process of penning this story where you felt conflicted or struggled with biases of your own?
JHA: I’m confounded by the myopia of the religious right’s views toward homosexuality. Ila attended a college (now known as Vanguard University) that is affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. A university employee, who worked there at the time Ila pitched, told me that had she come out, she would have been off the team and out of school. To date, the university has not offered to host a book signing—this for the woman who brought them a great deal of publicity. I think that’s shameful. It’s my view that fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity has woefully ignored Christ’s commandment to love others as one loves oneself. So, rather than conflict with my bias toward this issue, I found Ila’s experience confirmed my belief that it’s possible to live honorably and devoutly as a gay born-again Christian. The responses we’ve received from readers have shown there’s a hunger for this point of view.
TCR: Were there any challenges unique to this type of storytelling?
JHA: The challenge of needing to collaborate and make sure that every word of every sentence was acceptable to Ila was offset by her trust in my judgment and her honesty in speaking up when she had a change to make. It was also offset by the sense of companionship that evolved as we wrote the story. I found the writing of my first book to be quite a lonesome experience. Yes, I had writer friends who were great about talking over ideas and passages (my list of acknowledgments is fairly lengthy), but it came down to me writing alone in the room, day after day. With Ila, I felt like we were companions in the experience of creating the book, and I liked that.
TCR: What writing rituals do you have, and did you find the need to adjust any of them with this project?
JHA: I was better organized with this project because, by now, I had learned how to write a book. Working early on the organization of the interior of each chapter helped a lot. (Not all authors follow an outline, God help us.) I also learned through a writer friend, George Gmelch, about the 45/15 regimen, rather than enduring hours-long shifts at the computer, as I did with my first book. You set your timer for forty-five minutes and write. When the timer goes off, you reset it for fifteen minutes, walk away from the computer and make phone calls or walk the dog or weed the garden. (It’s amazing what you can accomplish in fifteen minutes.) When the timer goes off, you return to the computer and do it again and again until it’s time to quit for the day. I also made sure to get out and spend time with live people every afternoon and Not Talk About the Book. Speaking of which, by now, my family members understand not to bring up how the book is going in social situations. As much as we authors love writing books, it’s a relief to get away from the work-in-progress in social situations.
Originally from the Cayman Islands, Nathania Seales Oh is an entertainment industry veteran with 20-plus years of production experience, and is presently living and writing in Southern California. She earned her B.A. at Pepperdine University and is currently working on her MFA in nonfiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. Nathania Seales Oh teaches Script to Screen, a workshop with the Newport/Mesa ProLiteracy program and was recently voted on the Literacy Advisory Board.