Little League World Series Opening Ceremony to Mark 30th Anniversary of Decision Allowing Girls to Play
It was a lawsuit filed on behalf of 12-year-old Maria Pepe that eventually led to Little League’s decision to allow girls to play in the baseball divisions, and to create a girls softball program.
Since 1951, Little League rules had prohibited girls from playing. But in 1972, Maria tried out for and was placed on a team in the Hoboken (N.J.) Little League. She played in three games, then was compelled to leave the Young Democrats team.
“(After playing in three games) my coach came to me and told me that Little League said they had to take me off the team or the league would lose its charter,” Ms. Pepe said. “I didn't want to make a hundred kids mad at me, so I had to step down. They let me keep my hat, though, which I still have.”
The case drew the attention of the media, and the National Organization for Women (NOW).
“The newspapers were all doing stories about it, and then my parents got a call from NOW,” she said. “They asked my parents if they (NOW) could represent me in a case that could get Little League to admit girls. Now, I come from a very traditional Italian family, and it shocked my folks that I even wanted to play baseball. But I always thought God gave me certain talents for a reason, and I thought, 'I always play sandlot ball with the boys, why not in a uniform?' So my folks finally decided to let NOW go ahead.”
The case dragged on for more than two years, as did similar cases around the country.
“I can remember coming home every day from school, asking my mom if they made a decision,” Ms. Pepe said. “I was just 12, so I didn't understand at the time what was taking so long. Of course, by the time it was decided, I was in high school and too old for Little League.”
The final ruling came in early 1974 when local Little Leagues in New Jersey were told they must allow girls to try out. Instead of resisting further, Little League decided to not only allow girls to play in its baseball programs, but to create a softball program for girls only.
Ms. Pepe will be honored for helping to blaze the way for millions of girls – not only in Little League, but in other aspects of life for which girls and women were previously thought to be unsuitable.
“I always felt like, someday, this was all going to come full circle,” Ms. Pepe said. “I was just a shy kid who wanted to play baseball. I can't tell you how grateful I am, and how thrilled I am about coming to the World Series…I always dreamed about that.”
Maria went on to play basketball and softball in high school, then played varsity softball at St. Peters College, a Jesuit school in New Jersey where she earned a business degree. She is a CPA and is controller at the Hackensack University Medical Center, a 6,000-employee hospital where she has worked for the past 18 years.
In 1974, nearly 30,000 girls signed up for the softball program. One in 57 Little Leaguers that year was a girl. Today, about one in seven Little Leaguers is a girl. Nearly 360,000 girls play in the various divisions of Little League Softball for ages 5-18, and there are four World Series tournaments in Little League Softball, with two having games on national television annually. In addition, Little League estimates the number of girls currently participating in Little League Baseball programs to be about 100,000. Approximately 5 million girls have played Little League Baseball and Softball in the past 30 years.
“We're pleased that Maria will be joining us at the World Series,” said Stephen D. Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball and Softball. “Many people take an entire lifetime to make an impact on the world, and Maria Pepe did that as a 12-year-old. Every girl who aspires to play sports owes her a debt of gratitude.”
Ms. Pepe has loaned the glove and hat she wore in her three Little League games to the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum in South Williamsport for display, so that thousands of boys and girls can learn firsthand about her experience. The new display on the roots of girls' participation in Little League debuted this past spring.
“Since it was founded in 1939, Little League has mirrored society in many ways,” said Mr. Keener. “The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of turmoil for Little League, which resisted the idea of girls participating in what had been a program for boys only. Eventually, Little League came to accept the idea, and now our program is much stronger because of the nearly half-million girls who are Little Leaguers today.”
Maria’s experience, in fact, ranks fifth on ESPN's list of the greatest moments in U.S. women's sports history. (See the entire list here: http://espn.go.com/page2/s/list/moments/uswomen.html)