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Landmark Decision Allowed Girls to Play Little League

Hoboken's Maria Pepe honored at 2004 World Series

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (Nov. 4, 2003) Over thirty years ago, 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.

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, and 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.