Between 1875 and 1877, Joe Borden threw the first professional baseball no-hitter, won the first National League game, threw the first Major League no-hitter, was reassigned to be head groundskeeper for Boston, then was out of the league completely. He was also the first pitcher to be relieved from a game, became the first player to fall for the hidden ball trick, and was called “the most outrageous fraud” by the Boston Herald.
He is Josephus the Phenomenal.
Borden was the son of a shoe salesman who didn’t much care for the reputation of baseball. Joe had to hide the fact that he played the game, but that became difficult when the Philadelphia White Stockings signed the young man during the 1875 season. Their original pitcher was let go for “drunkenness and general misbehavior” so Joe had to hit the ground running. Only he wasn’t Joe Borden, he was Joe Josephs or Joe Nedrob to avoid soiling the family name.
Whatever his name, pitching didn’t come easy, and for good reason. Baseball in the 1870s was a little different than today’s game. The most obvious example, besides a significant amount of impressive twirly mustaches back then, is that pitchers tossed the ball underhand to hitters with the intent to induce content.
Pitchers were encouraged to put the ball in play where the fielders – who didn’t wear gloves – would record the outs. You can see how achieving a no-hitter would be a little more difficult than in 2021.
Borden still managed to create a spectacle, for better or for worse.
His first two starts for Philadelphia landed on the worse side of the spectrum. He allowed 16 runs and lost both games. It was the third start that he turned it around, pitching nine innings of no-hit baseball – becoming the first professional player to achieve that mark.
The issue is that the Philadelphia White Stockings were part of the National Association (NA), not part of the future MLB. While it was the first professional baseball league, Major League Baseball ruled in 1969 that the NA – more formally the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP) – was not a Major League thereby striking any and all records including Joe Borden’s no-hitter.
Major League record or not, Joe quickly made a name for himself in the baseball world. He pitched so well the rest of 1875 that he earned his nickname “Josephus the Phenomenal” in newspapers. When the Association folded at the end of the season, the Bosten Red Caps of the newly formed National League signed the pitcher to one of the first multi-year contracts in sports at $2,000 per year.
As a thank you, Joe Borden won the first game in National League history on April 22nd, 1876 going nine rocky innings while giving up ten hits to his former city, the Philadelphia Athletics (it helps the Athletics made eleven errors).
Borden pitched again two days later and gave up twenty runs to Philly, and two days after that he became the first Major League pitcher to be relieved from a game when he was removed in the fifth inning.
Redemption would follow soon after. On a rainy day in May with just a few hundred fans in the stands, Joe attempted to put his early-season woes behind him. Borden blanked the Cincinnati Red Stockings, going the distance without allowing a hit. For the second time in as many years, Joe Borden threw a no-hitter – this time for the National League but it still wouldn’t be counted.
In typical 19th-century baseball, we’re not actually sure if Joe Borden threw the first no-hitter in Major League history – and baseball historians are divided. Baseball today has homogeneous rules across the country. Four balls draw a walk, a batter can’t strike out on a foul ball, and baseballs are all made the same way. That wasn’t always the case in the 1800s, and scorekeeping possessed that same chaotic randomness.
Enter the delightfully named Opie Caylor. Opie was an influential journalist in Cincinnati – who Cincinatti’s owner said looked, “like a rotten tomato on the end of a corn stalk” and was also called, “a pimple on the end of a stick.”
Despite those glowing superlatives, Opie remained an influential figure in Cincinnati baseball and for a year in 1876 served as their official scorekeeper. It was Opie who submitted the official game report that day when Joe didn’t allow a single base hit.
Opie, however, tended to mark a walk as a hit in the official records. When Josephus the Phenomenal completed nine innings of no-hit baseball, the score recorded two hits by Red Stocking players Charlie Gould and Charley Jones.
This was so utterly normal that no one questioned the veracity of the report, until 75 years later when baseball historian Lee Allen took a look. Lee discovered the hits that Opie attributed to Red Stockings were actually walks by Borden. This game should have been the first no-hitter in MLB history. But baseball was set in its ways and didn’t recognize Borden’s feat.
This historic event passed unbeknownst to Borden and the few fans scattered about in the stands that rainy day in May, but the pitcher continued his bottle-rocket-like career. One month after his no-no-hitter, Borden served up the first walk-off home run in Major League history and was the first victim to fall for the hidden ball trick. By the end of the season, Josephus the Phenomenal was out of the league. His final stats don’t quite suggest a figure with any historic significance:
- 218 1/3 Innings Pitched
- 22 errors as a pitcher
- 21 wild pitches
- 77 ERA+
- .462 fielding percentage in right field
The only little detail that remained was that multi-year contract Boston had him signed to. The team desperately wanted him to vanish especially since he would be owed $2,000. Boston tried convincing Borden to simply retire – which he of course balked at.
Then Boston asked him to be groundskeeper (becoming undoubtedly the highest-paid groundskeeper in the league), and he even umpired an exhibition game for the team. The new positions and whirling around must have done the trick. The two sides agreed to a buy-out in 1877. As a parting gift, the Boston Herald wrote this of Josephus the Phenomenal: “[He was] one of the most outrageous frauds who ever saw his name in a score sheet”.
Whether either of his no-hitters were frauds themselves, Josephus the Phenomenal is just another great story in the murky history of baseball.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)