Joseph Borden (far right, second from top) in
an 1876 team photograph of the Boston Red Caps
Joseph Emley Borden was never a famous name like Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle. His career lasted just two seasons, in which he played in only 39 games. A pitcher, the onetime Yeadon resident’s earned-run average was 2.56, which baseball writer Charlie Weatherby described as “unassuming.”
But in 1875, Borden did something that no pro player had ever done before: He pitched the first no-hitter. “He was called ‘phenomenal’ when he broke in,” according to Weatherby. “But he was released in the middle of his second season, causing Sporting Life to note that Borden’s career ‘went up like a rocket and came down like a stick.’”
Born in Jacobstown, N.J., Borden was the son of Sarah Ann Emley and John Borden, a prosperous shoe-and-boot manufacturer. The family had lived in Burlington County since 1717, when Joseph Borden—founder of Bordentown—established an iron forge. By 1870, the Bordens were living near Girard College in Philadelphia. At the time, Joe was 16 and fell in love with baseball. “It was the sport,” said baseball writer John Shiffert. “Basketball and football hadn’t been invented yet; boxing was illegal; tennis and golf really didn’t exist except for a few country clubs; cricket was on the wane.”
Borden first appeared in 1875 as a member of the J.B. Doerr club, a group of amateurs that played the best local clubs. There, Borden pitched under the surname “Josephs.” In his career, he would also go by “Joe Nedrob,” spelling his surname backward, likely in an effort to protect his family from the shame of playing what was then considered such a rowdy sport.
Despite the pseudonyms, Borden drew attention. On July 12, 1875, the Doerr team faced the professional Philadelphia Athletics, with Borden pitching as Josephs. Doerr won that game 6-4, with the Boston Globe reporting that “the Athletics [were] unable to hit him”—an overstatement, since the opposing team scored four runs, but still indicative that Borden was a very competent pitcher. “Doerr beating Athletic in an exhibition game was a pretty big deal,” said Shiffert.
Borden was soon recruited to the Philadelphia White Stockings, also known as the Pearls. The Pearls had just dismissed pitcher Cherokee Fisher for what one writer described as “drunkenness and general misbehavior.” Manager Mike McGeary hired Borden as a temporary pitcher, and he debuted with the Pearls on July 24 in a game against the Athletics the Philadelphia Inquirer called “long and tedious, although closely contested in the first six innings.” Borden gave up eight runs in the seventh and eighth innings, losing 11-4.
The Inquirer defined Borden’s pitching as “swift but rather wild.” Teammate Tim Murnane was more blunt: Borden was “hammered all over the lot.” Borden’s performance against the Chicago White Stockings two days later wasn’t any better. The Pearls lost 8-1.
Then came Borden’s moment: July 28, 1875—only 16 days after the Doerr-Athletics game that brought him to the Pearls’ attention. His brief career was about to peak. He pitched the first recorded no-hitter in the history of professional baseball that day, against Chicago. Due to threatening rain, the 4-0 shutout played in front of just 500 spectators at the Athletics’ Jefferson Park home field.
It’s an accomplishment for any pitcher, but less rare than one might suspect. There have been 294 no-hitters—a full nine-inning game in which no opposing player is able to hit the ball—since Borden’s, an average of about two per season. Today, with walks or errors, it’s possible for an opposing player to get on base in a no-hitter.
That game wasn’t reported in detail, but the Chicago Tribune called it “one of the best games ever played. From the effective pitching of Josephs, the Chicagos were unable to make a base hit throughout the entire game—a thing unparalleled in the annals of baseball.”
Borden lost a game 2-0 against Chicago on Aug. 5, then won big—16-0— against the St. Louis Brown Stockings on Aug. 9. In the latter game, he gave up just four hits. After that, George Zettlein, the Pearls’ permanent replacement pitcher, took over, and Borden was no longer needed. Still, he had made an impression, pitching 66 innings and finishing his season with a 1.50 earned-run average.
Borden was dubbed “Josephus the Phenomenal.” He returned briefly to the Doerr club, but soon received several offers from other teams. Eventually, he signed a three-year contract with the Boston Red Caps for a $2,000 annual salary. It was one of the first multiyear contracts in baseball history.
The Boston Daily Advertiser was ecstatic about the acquisition, calling Borden “probably the best pitcher in the country next to [future Hall of Fame member Al] Spalding,” who would sign with Chicago.
Borden’s second season didn’t live up to the promise of his first. Starting erratically, he threw a ball 10 feet over the catcher’s head into the stands. In June, Boston lost three straight games to Chicago’s Spalding, and Borden’s irregular pitching was panned by fans and the media. His final game was July 15, 1876, a 15-0 loss to Chicago. In August, he was released by the Red Caps, which eventually bought out his contract.
Back home, Borden seems to have gone into his father’s business. In 1880, the census recorded him as a “dealer in boots and shoes,” living in West Chester. He married well in 1891 to Henrietta Evans, daughter of Henry S. Evans, publisher of the Village Record newspaper. The Bordens later moved to Fernwood in Delaware County and settled into comfortable obscurity.