Little League pioneer blazed trail for girls
Hoboken player took the field in 1972
By BERNIE MIXON,
Courier-Post Staff Tuesday, August 17, 2004
HOBOKEN -- Long before the first pitch, the battle would begin for Maria Pepe, the curly-haired pitcher for the Hoboken Young Democrats' Little League baseball team.
Girls were barred from playing on teams with boys and Little League officials made the consequences clear: Remove Pepe or the Hoboken Little League would lose its charter.
The conflict in 1972 set the stage for a landmark New Jersey decision that led Little League officials 30 years ago to strike out the provision
excluding girls from its programs.
The legacy of the case can be found on ballfields across South Jersey and the country as a generation of girls live out their sports dreams on
Maria Pepe plays with members of the Hoboken Little League, including Cassandra Ortiz behind the plate.
teams with boys.
"Over the years, largely because of what Maria Pepe did, probably five to six million girls have had the opportunity to play Little League baseball and softball," said Lance Van Auken, senior communications executive, for Little League Baseball and Softball and co-author of Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball.
"I think girls who grow up today have so many options available careerwise and sportswise. She can go out an enjoy them," said Pepe, 44, controller at the Hackensack University Medical Center, who will be recognized on Friday by Little League for her contribution to the game.
It was fitting that the battle over girls in Little League would take place in Hoboken, long recognized by historians as the birthplace of baseball. The first baseball game is believed to have been played in 1846 in Hoboken.
Almost a century later, Little League Baseball was founded in 1939 by Carl Stotz in Williamsport, Pa., as a way to teach discipline, teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play to boys.
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In 1964, Congress voted to give the organization a federal charter "charging the organization with administering a program for the betterment of boys," according to Van Auken's book.
During this era of male dominance, many fathers were the coaches while their sons were the players. Women, meanwhile, became members of auxiliaries, worked the concession area and rooted from the stands, Van Aiken said.
While Pepe may be the most well-known girl to play Little League baseball, the title of first girl to play on a Little League team may belong to Kathryn Johnston.
With her hair tucked under her hat and using a nickname, Johnston was selected in 1950 to play on a Corning, N.Y., team. She later told her manager and team about her true identity.
A year later, Little League regulations were changed to read, "Girls are not eligible under any conditions."
With the barrier against girls on the books, the organization threatened to remove the charter of local organizations who included girls on their teams.
In Hoboken, 20 years later, Pepe was trying to find an outlet for her athletic talents.
"My town didn't offer anything for girls. There were no organized sports. And yet I was this great athlete. I had this inner spirit to get out and play. I loved how it made you feel afterwards," Pepe said.
She made friends with a group of boys in her neighborhood and they would invite her to play many different sports, including baseball. To them, she was just one of the guys.
She was with some of these same friends on a fateful day in 1972 that would change her life.
Pepe was tagging along when her friends went to sign up for Little League Baseball. The coach, Jim Farina, invited her to try out for the team.
"She was a natural. She got on the field and she knew all the moves. She was exceptional. She was better than most of the boys," said Farina, who is the city clerk in Hoboken.
Selected as a pitcher, Pepe's presence on the mound attracted attention of a different kind.
"You knew you were the attraction not only for being on the mound - everybody watches the pitcher - but you have people saying, `that's Maria Pepe. She's a girl,' " Pepe said."
Soon, Pepe began to feel the pressure.
"You have coaches on the side whispering. Even before the game would start the coaches would collaborate and say, `Look, are you really going to put her out there. The rule book says girls are not allowed,' " Pepe recalled.
Yet, her coach stood by her.
"He would say, `This girl knows how to play and I am putting her out there.' Three full games, I got to play. And two of them I remember, the coaches were concerned and threatened if they lost they were going to blame it on the fact that we didn't follow the rules," Pepe said.
Then word reached Little League headquarters that a girl was on a Hoboken team.
"Some people were a little envious that she was better than their boys," Farina said. "One thing led to another and they started making phone calls.
"I wasn't paying attention to any rules. I was just paying attention to whether a kid could play whether it was a girl or a boy," he added.
As they had before, Little League officials presented their option: Either Pepe comes off the field or Hoboken's organization would lose their charter.
And that would mean all 12 teams in the Hoboken league would lose their chance to play if the charter was pulled.
"I was going to keep her on the team," Farina said. "I wasn't going to take her off. She stood her ground for a 12-year-old, even though all the pressure was on her."
At the same time, the situation left Pepe sad and confused.
"No one was letting me be happy. What made me happy was playing ball. I was very Catholic growing up and I used to pray to God and say, `Look, you must have made a mistake because if everyone is saying I shouldn't have this ability because my place is somewhere else you have to explain why I have this ability because it is in my bones,' " she said. "You feel like these people are wrong and God doesn't make mistakes."
In the end, Pepe decided to stop playing.
"The hardest thing for me was giving back the uniform," she said. "You almost felt a little stripped of your identity."
Little League argued girls should not play the game because of physical differences and because the federal charter could be changed only by Congress.
Pepe's plight first attracted the attention of the media and then the Essex County chapter of the National Organization for Women, which took up her case in the courts.
NOW sued the Little League in the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights on the basis that the organization excluded girls based on their sex.
"We thought the case had a good chance based on the New Jersey civil rights statute that specified public accommodations," said Judith Weis, former NOW president and a professor of biology at Rutgers University's Newark campus. "Since Little League was played on public fields we felt it was a public accommodation."
Recently retired Judge Sylvia Pressler, then a hearing examiner, had to determine whether the Little League was a public accommodation and whether there was a physiological reason girls could not compete.
Pressler ruled in NOW and Pepe's favor in 1973, paving the way for New Jersey to become the first state to order Little League to permit girls to play Little League baseball.
After losing its appeals in the state courts, Little League was faced with a decision.
"Little League had three choices: to continue fighting to the U.S. Supreme Court, to admit girls into the program in New Jersey because that was the only place it had an effect or admit girls on a worldwide basis," said Van Auken. "The third option was the one that was the most viable."
Little League, decided to change the regulations and admit girls. It was also the year the organization added softball to its organized sports program.
While Pepe was happy the rules were finally changed, it came too late for her to participate because at 13 she exceeded the age requirement.
"When the ruling came out I remember my dad saying, `Maria you have to be happy.' But I said, `Dad I'm too old to play and why did it take so long.' He said, `You have to recognize this will benefit so many girls to come,' " she said.
Yet, sports would continue to be a mainstay in Pepe's life.
She played basketball in high school and softball in college in addition to playing in summer sports leagues.
Pepe graduated from Saint Peter's College with a degree in accounting and later became a certified public accountant. She went to Fairleigh Dickinson University and earned a master's degree in finance.
The impact of the decision became clear to her over the years as more girls began taking to athletic fields.
"When I go past the fields and see the girls playing, it is very touching and sometimes a little emotional for me," Pepe said.
"I am quietly at peace with what happened. It took me a long time to come to a point where I was comfortable with the outcome because even though the ruling was in favor of the girls there was this sense in the air that no one was happy," she said.
The victory was a quiet one, Pepe said.
It was not until recently that her role in the landmark ruling took a celebrated turn.
Little League officials invited her to take part in festivities at the Little League World Series. She will throw out the first pitch at Friday's opening game.
Her only regret is that her father, who believed in her right to play baseball with the boys, died before he could witness her her contribution officially recognized by Little League baseball.
Yet, Pepe said, the case was more than one girl's right to play ball but a whole generation of players asking for equal treatment.
"I don't look at this as something that I did. I was the nucleus but there were all these people around me who contributed," she said. "I couldn't have done this by myself at 12 years old. The only thing I was capable of doing at 12 was playing the game."
Her coach sees her legacy in a different way.
"Maria's legacy is that she paved the way as one of the women who opened the door not only for Little League but for a variety of sports that women play today," Farina said.
Reach Bernie Mixon at (856) 486-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.