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Little League to Mark 30th Anniversary of Decision Allowing Girls to Play

Hoboken's Maria Pepe to be honored at 2004 World Series

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (Nov. 4, 2003) -- Thirty years ago this week, Little League Baseball was changed forever - a change that eventually would allow millions of girls to participate in the world’s largest organized youth sports program.

Maria Pepe played only three Little League games, but she had a lasting impact on Little League and women's sports. Photos courtesy of Maria Pepe.

A ruling by Sylvia Pressler, hearing examiner for the New Jersey Civil Rights Division on Nov. 7, 1973, was later upheld in the Superior Court, leading to Little League Baseball’s admittance of girls into its programs. Until then, Little League regulations had prohibited girls from participating, and the change led to greater opportunities, such as those for the 10 girls who played on teams that have reached the Little League Baseball World Series.

“The institution of Little League is as American as the hotdog and apple pie,” Ms. Pressler said in part of her ruling. “There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”

So, in 1974, Little League Softball for girls was created, and the baseball rules and regulations were made non-gender specific. In 1974, nearly 30,000 girls signed up for the softball program. One in 57 Little Leaguers that year was a girl.

The move came amid lively debates on women's rights. It was three years after President Nixon signed Title IX into law, giving women greater opportunities to receive scholarships and funding for college athletics. It also was three years after the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the U.S. Congress and sent to the individual states for ratification.

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.

“Since it was founded in 1939, Little League has mirrored society in many ways,” said Stephen D. Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball. “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 Pepe: 12-Year-Old Pioneer
The distinction of being the first girl to play on a Little League Baseball team belongs to Kathryn Johnston, who in 1950 tucked her hair under her baseball cap -- using a nickname and posing as a boy -- and tried out for a Little League team in Corning, N.Y. She made the team, then revealed her gender to her manager. The manager and the league allowed her to play, considering it a novelty.

(Kathryn is now Kathryn Massar, and is a trauma nurse in Rideout, Calif. She visited the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport in 2001 and threw out a ceremonial first pitch at one of the games.)

Word of a girl playing on a Little League team may have reached Williamsport, because in 1951, this single line made its first appearance in the Little League regulations: “Girls are not eligible under any conditions.” There is no direct evidence that Miss Johnston's participation caused the rules to be changed, but until that time, the rules referred to boys only in general terms, and did not specifically exclude girls.

Through the next two decades, several girls played on Little League teams “illegally.” During that time, when it came to the attention of officials at Little League Headquarters in Williamsport that a girl had been placed on a team, the standard response was for the local league to receive notification that girls were not eligible. If a league refused to remove the girl, Little League would revoke the local league's charter.

In 1972, another such incident occurred when 12-year-old Maria Pepe 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,” Miss 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.”

Maria became a celebrity of sorts, and the New York Yankees honored her and her family with a special day at Yankee Stadium, with General Manager Lee MacPhail personally presenting Maria with a shirt. The case drew the attention of the media, probably because of Hoboken's proximity to New York City.

That, in turn, drew the attention of 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 U.S., in many instances supported by NOW.

“I can remember coming home every day from school, asking my mom if they made a decision,” Miss 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 admit girls worldwide, but to create a softball program for girls only.
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.

Miss Pepe has agreed to be a guest of Little League Baseball at the 58th Little League Baseball World Series in August 2004. She 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.

Her 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)

“Once in a while, I get invited to talk at a school about it, and kids really love hearing the story -- boys and girls,” she said. “I feel good inside about what happened, even though I only got to play three games. I think the experience made me a different person, a stronger person.

“I always felt like, someday, this was all going to come full circle. It was never my way to reach out to anyone, but just to talk to people who came to me about it, if they wanted to. 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.”

The specific date and time that Miss Pepe will be honored will be announced sometime next year. She also has agreed to loan the glove and hat she wore in her three Little League games to the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum 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 is expected to debut in the spring of 2004.

“We're pleased that Maria will be joining us at the World Series,” Mr. Keener said. “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.”