Maria Pepe is not a household name, but hundreds of thousands of girls around the country have her to thank for the right to play baseball. This weekend, over 140 girls from the Northeastern United States have gathered in Edgewater, New Jersey, for the east coast’s first ever all-girls baseball tournament. That this is possible is due, in large part, to a 12-year-old girl who was told she was not allowed to play Little League ball and was brave enough to fight back.
In 1972, Maria Pepe decided to try out for a new Little League team with her friends in Hoboken, New Jersey. She’d grown up playing ball in the streets with the boys in her neighborhood and so, when the Hoboken Young Democrats held a tryout, it seemed only natural that Pepe would show up. “My friends all went in and signed their name and I stood at the door but my coach came out – his name was Jimmy Farina – and he asked why I wasn’t signing up,” Pepe told the BBC World Service in a July 2018 interview (Pepe declined to be interviewed for this story). “I looked at him and said, ‘You think you would take a chance and let me sign up? My name’s Maria.’ And he said, ‘Can you play? And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ there’s no question I could play.”
Pepe made the first cut, and then the second. A 10 May 1972 article from the Daily News noted that Pepe batted over .300 in her first two games with the team. The Bridgewater (New Jersey) Courier-News observed, “Maria … played right field and third base for the team when she wasn’t at her primary position – the pitcher’s mound” and “her fastball is rated at least equal to her teammates”. But word had gotten back to Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and they were not happy. After Kathryn ‘Tubby’ Johnston played one season of Little League in 1950, the rules were changed to state that girls were “not eligible under any circumstances”. The league threatened to pull the city of Hoboken’s charter – jeopardizing hundreds of boys’ access to baseball – if Pepe wasn’t removed from the team.
Her coaches were some of her biggest advocates. “She plays for us because she is a good hitter and an outstanding fielder,” the Young Democrats’ manager, Carmine Ronga, told the Daily News. “If the national office says drop her or lose Little League baseball in Hoboken, we’ll drop her, but it would be unfair.” But after three games, that’s just what they had to do. Pepe says that she was offered the opportunity to be the team’s scorekeeper, which she did for one game but she told the BBC that “being out of the uniform and just keeping score was so extremely frustrating that I knew I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Pepe’s story caught the attention of the National Organization for Women (Now), who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit on her behalf. Little League brought in experts to testify why girls should be excluded from playing baseball with boys. Creighton Hale, a physiologist and executive of Little League, Inc., testified that a study from Japan showed that “female bones can take less twisting, less weight before being crushed and bend less before snapping” and “male muscles are stronger, men have a quicker reaction time and move quicker,” according to The Central New Jersey Home News. Creighton went on to conclude that “a girl batter standing 46 feet from the pitcher – the distance from the plate to the mound in little league baseball – would be slower in getting away from a beanball than a boy” and an injury to the face would be “disastrous” for girls from “a cosmetic point of view”. There were arguments speculating about the problems that would arise if a girl was injured and her pants had to be taken off on the field; speculation about the risk of a woman developing breast cancer from “being tagged out on the boobs”. “None of this stuff seemed to matter to me… yet these were the arguments,” Pepe told the BBC. “I just kept saying, ‘Mom maybe the judge will ask me to come and show I could play,’ like that was all that mattered to me.”
For Pepe, it was a lot to handle. Despite the fact that she was “a mentally strong” kid, she “did have some hurt deep down inside”. She said she would run home every day after school to find out if a verdict had been reached, and would pore over the day’s newspaper to read about progress in the case. “It was a tough experience as a child, trying to understand it all and thinking there was something wrong with me, they’re telling me I shouldn’t play ball,” she said. “And it was hard. Those things are hard to digest when you’re 11.” By the time the ruling came back, in 1974, Pepe was too old to play in Little League. But it was good news for all the girls who would come after her. The judge ruled in favor of Pepe, saying, “the institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and the apple pie and that part of Americana should not be withheld from girls”. Twenty similar lawsuits followed, and Little League amended their charter to make their rules and regulations non-gender specific.
Today, over 100,000 girls play youth baseball and at least 15 have made it to the Little League World Series. Baseball for All, a nonprofit that aims to support and grow the future of women’s baseball, was founded in 2010 and held their first national tournament in 2015. The inaugural BFA Maria Pepe Baseball Series honors the girl who made it all possible. “Girls can play baseball today because Maria Pepe stood up for their right to play,” said Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball For All and the first woman to coach for a Major League Baseball organization.
While BFA has been at the forefront of advocating for girls to play baseball, the rest of the baseball world is beginning to catch up. In 2015, Major League Baseball hosted its first Trailblazer Series, an all-girls tournament. This year, they added an all-girls Breakthrough Series and are working on other projects. “It’s extremely important to baseball to the [MLB] commissioner that all young people have an opportunity to play our game if they choose to,” says Tony Reagins, the executive vice president of baseball and softball development at Major League Baseball. “With each event we put on the interest has grown.”
However much progress there has been since Pepe played, girls still face an uphill battle to play hardball. Many of the girls persevere through pressure to switch to softball, exclusion from all-star teams, heckling and verbal abuse, and more sinister things. Earlier this year, a New Hampshire girl made headlines when it leaked that youth baseball coaches planned to tell their pitchers to throw at her head until she quit. Luckily, there is a network of all-girls baseball teams cropping up to provide a supportive playing environment. The Boston Slammers, who have several all-girls teams, reached out to the player’s family after seeing the news reports, and she now plays with the Slammers 11U (11-and-under) team.
Reagins says that MLB is committed to continuing to support the growth of the girls game, which will involve a culture shift and ensuring that everybody – coaches, parents, other players – receives the message that baseball isn’t just for boys. “What my message would be going forward is we encourage every young lady who wants to play our game to go out and play, play Little League whether it’s with boys or other girls, follow your dreams,” he says.
The Slammers are one of the teams traveling to New Jersey this weekend for the inaugural Maria Pepe Baseball Series. It’s one of many honors that Pepe has received in her home state since she fought for the right of girls across the country to play the game they love. The batting cages at the field where she played in Hoboken have been named after her. And in 2004, she was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the court ruling.
When she arrived at the tournament, she met Creighton Hale for the first time, the man whose name she’d known only as the person testifying against her in court all those years ago. “He shook my hand and he said, ‘I want you to know my granddaughter plays.’ I think it was his way of saying he had come full circle. And it was like a healing moment,” Pepe told the BBC. “I feel like I get to play forever through all the girls who play today.”
Written by Britni de la Cretaz | The Guardian