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Youth Sports Hero of the Month: Maria Pepe (Hoboken, New Jersey)

 

Maria Pepe's entire Little League baseball career lasted only three games, but her courage remade American youth sports.

When 11-year-old Maria donned her uniform briefly in 1972, Little League was played worldwide by about 2.5 million boys -- and one girl. She would change that.

"Maria Pepe Kicked Off Team"

Shortly before the Hoboken Little League's spring tryouts in 1972, neighborhood boys approached Jimmy Farina, coach of the team sponsored by the Young Democrats. Maria, they said, batted and fielded as well as many of them, and better than some. The boys had reason to know because she had played in their sandlot pick-up games ever since they were five years old.

Maria beat out some boys in pre-season tryouts, and then she earned a spot in the Young Democrats' starting lineup. When she pitched in the opener, local families paid attention -- perhaps too much attention, because angry parents and coaches reported her to the Little League's national office in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Local newspapers speculated that many of these adults feared that publicity about the trailblazing Maria would deflect attention from their sons. Worse yet, a girl might strike out boys. Group of girls playing baseball

Because Little League had officially permitted enrollment of only boys ever since a girl in northern New York had tried to play in 1951, the national office threatened to revoke recognition of Hoboken's entire ten-team program unless the Young Democrats struck Maria from the roster immediately. Rather than sideline about two hundred local boys, Maria discussed the dilemma with her parents and bowed to official demands.

"The hardest part was when they took my uniform away," she recalled more than three decades later, "I still remember the headlines, ‘Maria Pepe Kicked Off Team'."

A "very, very courageous girl"

Little League's national office had the law, and a hefty share of public opinion, on its side when it demanded Maria's uniform. In 1964, Congress had granted Little League, Inc. a federal charter to "assist boys in developing qualities of citizenship, sportsmanship and manhood." Lower courts had rejected challenges to the Little League charter's boys-only mandate, and the Supreme Court had not yet begun to closely scrutinize gender-discrimination claims in all walks of American life. President Richard Nixon had not yet signed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which would open unprecedented interscholastic and intercollegiate opportunities for female athletes.

Maria was about to change the law. With the Pepe family's approval, the National Organization for Women (NOW) filed a gender discrimination claim on her behalf against Little League Baseball, Inc. with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. On November 7, 1973, the Division sided with Maria, whom hearing officer Sylvia Pressler called a "very, very courageous girl." "The institution of Little League Baseball is as American as the hot dog and apple pie," Pressler ruled crisply, and "there is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls."

Little League's national office roundly condemned Pressler's ruling as "conceived in vindictive and prejudicial fashion of the worst kind."  National officials said that the ruling "totally surprised" them because "we always assumed that baseball was a boys' sport. We think that most people . . . accepted baseball as a male prerogative of some sort."

The New York Times reported that Pressler's ruling immediately "traumatized" Little League baseball in New Jersey. Most of the state's 2,000 teams threatened to suspend play altogether rather than enroll girls. Enraged citizens descended on the governor's office, and about 800 demonstrators marched on the state capitol to lobby legislators to amend the state's civil rights law to exclude girls from the ball field. "Is this the American way?," cried the adult chair of the hastily-assembled Committee to Save Little League in New Jersey, who charged that "our rights have been eroded."

Maria and her family continued to endure insults in the local community. Adults on the street near their ten-story apartment would taunt her as a tomboy who should have been satisfied to stay home and play with dolls. Other neighbors said that she would have been better off learning how to sew and cook. One adult even yelled at her in the apartment's elevator for "causing all this trouble in town."

These were unsettling times for the Pepes, who were not public figures accustomed to the national attention generated by the legal proceedings, but rather a working class family whose 11-year-old daughter wanted only to continue playing the National Pastime with her friends. "My dad was a longshoreman," Maria recalls, "He said, ‘This is what she wants to do,' and he stood by me." "My mom told people, ‘You mind your own business and I'll raise my child any way I want to.'"

The "changing social climate"

The Little League's national office would not yield without a bitter fight that lasted another year. The office appealed Pressler's decision to New Jersey's Superior Court with arguments that appear alien to reasonable 21st-century parents and coaches. The Little League argued, among other things, that:

  • girls faced heightened risk of injury because their bone strength, muscle strength and reaction time were inferior to those of boys;
  • "children of each sex need occasional ‘islands of privateness' during which they can be alone with others of their own sex";
  • enrolling girls might threaten their personal privacy because public baseball fields generally lacked nearby girls' restrooms, and because male coaches might have to administer first aid to injured girls.
  • focusing entirely on boys was a prudent use of limited Little League resources because many boys would continue playing baseball into their teen years while most girls would not; and
  • Congress had instructed the Little League to develop "qualities of citizenship, sportsmanship, and manhood" in "boys."

Court victory

On March 29, 1974, the Superior Court rejected each argument as unfounded and sometimes frivolous, and ordered the state's Little League programs to enroll boys and girls alike. Not ready to back down, the Little League appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which summarily affirmed the lower court decision in October ("Summary affirmance" means that the high court rejected the Little League's arguments and legal position with no discussion at all).

The New Jersey court decisions technically bound only that state's Little League teams, but the nationwide implications crystallized even before the state supreme court ruled. The Little League's national office announced that rather than defend gender-discrimination lawsuits elsewhere, it would "defer to the changing social climate" and begin enrolling girls. More than 30,000 girls nationwide played the following year. At least half a million girls have played Little League since then, despite Williamsport's dire warning in the New Jersey Superior Court that enrolling girls "would certainly cripple the program."

On December 26, 1974, Congress responded to Maria's victory by amending the federal charter that the lawmakers had granted Little League, Inc. a decade earlier. Today Little League's national purpose is to "help and voluntarily assist young people in developing qualities of citizenship and sportsmanship." No more mention of "boys" or "manhood." The amendment was promptly signed into law by President Gerald Ford, himself a former high school and collegiate athlete who understood the physical and emotional benefits that sports can provide both boys and girls.

As the dust settled, The Sporting News sensed a ray of hope emerging from the two-year legal skirmish. "Perhaps," the paper editorialized, "Little League's gung-ho coaches, who have been adamant in their stand against girls, will quit, as some of them have threatened, and will let more tolerant people run the teams so that the kids can play for fun."

Sadly, the fun eluded Maria, however, because she had turned thirteen before the men in Williamsport and Washington did their about-face in 1974. By that time, she was too old for the Little League, which enrolled 8-12-year-olds.

"My granddaughter plays"

Sometimes the passage of years brings ultimate vindication. In 2004, the thirtieth anniversary of Maria's legal victory, she accepted an invitation by Little League's national office to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Little League World Series in Williamsport. Still living in Hoboken, Maria was by then a certified public accountant and controller at the Hackensack University Medical Center. The ceremonial pitch would mark her first appearance on a Little League mound since she had reluctantly surrendered her uniform as an 11-year-old.

ESPN had just ranked Maria's court victory as history's fifth "greatest U.S. women's sports moment." Her cap and glove were prominently displayed at the McGovern Little League Museum in South Williamsport, and would soon appear in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

"Every girl who aspires to play sports owes her a debt of gratitude," Stephen D. Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball and Softball, said in a statement shortly before her arrival in Williamsport. "Our program is much stronger because of the nearly half million girls who are Little Leaguers today."

At the first-pitch ceremony, Maria met and shook hands with Little League's former executive vice president, Creighton J. Hale. Three decades earlier, Hale had led the national organization's dogged effort to exclude girls and had testified against her in court.
"I just want you to know," Hale confided, that "my granddaughter plays."

Lessons from this story: the fruits of personal courage

Did Maria Pepe's Little League career really ever end? As she headed to Williamsport in 2004, she reflected that, "It's really nice to contribute to someone else's life. I'll always get to play every time I see a girl out there."

"Thank God for her," said a grateful 12-year-old Alexandra Bellini, who watched the ceremonial first pitch before she and her Ottawa, Michigan teammates took the field to compete for the Little League World Series title.

It seems fitting that Hoboken, sometimes considered baseball's birthplace, also provided the scene for demolishing the barrier that had deprived so many young girls of full participation in the National Pastime.

The person, however, seems more important than the place. In sports, as in other areas of American life, the path to equality often awaits someone with courage to stand alone, supported perhaps only by family and friends, when acceptance of the status quo might seem easier.

Someone like Jackie Robinson, who in breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier with dignity and grace, helped Americans embrace the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Or someone like Curt Flood, who revolutionized Major League Baseball by challenging its "reserve clause" all the way to the Supreme Court because he said that he would not tolerate being treated as "a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes."

Usually the "someone with courage" is older than 11.

 


Sources: Read,  Phil. "When Little League Dropped the Ball." Times-Picayune (New Orleans), May 23, 2005, p. 4; Grossfield, Stan. "Little League to Honor Maria Pepe for Her Courage in Helping to Reform the Rules." Boston Globe, Aug. 19, 2004, p. C7; Treater, Joseph B.  "Girls a Hit in Debut on Diamond" New York Times, Mar. 25, 1974, p. 67; NOW v. Little League Baseball, Inc., 318 A.2d 33 (N.J. Super. Ct. 1974).

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