Jimmy Farina had never seen anything like it: Maria Pepe, a middle schooler, was striking out her male counterparts.
As the coach of the Young Democrats Little League team in Hoboken, New Jersey, Farina had allowed Pepe to try out for the 1972 season. Farina knew the “official” League rule book expressly prohibited girls, but dismissed it as silly. He heard from the neighborhood boys that Pepe was talented, and she had proven it during tryouts. She was better than most of the boys he'd seen.
Not everyone shared Farina's enthusiasm. When Pepe took the mound, her presence was met with outright hostility. Local press chided the team and Farina for breaking tradition; parents of boys on opposing teams grew agitated. Everyone knew Little League was a boys’ club.
After the Democrats had played just three games, Farina received a phone call from the Little League offices in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The publicity surrounding Pepe had made its way to headquarters, and the response was sharp: either Pepe was booted off the team, or Little League would be forced to revoke the Young Democrats' charter and cancel the rest of their season. Farina tried to protest, but Little League had made up its mind.
Reluctantly, he told Pepe he needed her uniform back. She could keep her hat.
Carl Stotz had no boys of his own, but his nephews enjoyed baseball. In 1938, Stotz decided to try and arrange an organized league for pre-teen players to foster sportsmanship and teamwork. The following year, he enlisted friends as team managers and came up with a name: Little League Baseball.
By 1953, the program’s World Series was being televised nationally. By 1960, over 27,000 teams had been formed. For much of that time, girls were virtually non-existent during play. When 12-year-old Kathryn Johnston took the field in 1950, angry parents made such a fuss that the League added an explicit ban to its rule book: “Girls are not eligible under any conditions.”
Though Pepe didn’t realize she was excluded by policy, she got the sense Little League teams were for boys. Having played wiffle ball since she was a toddler with cousins and brothers, she had become a skilled player but hung back when her male friends went to sign up for the Young Democrats in 1972. Coach Farina, however, knew of Pepe’s reputation and invited the shy young girl into the tryout.
“Why don’t you play?” he asked. Pepe pitched the first game of the season and acted as relief for the next two.
When she took to the field the first time, an inattentive reporter mistakenly referred to Pepe as a “he.” But her slender frame and curly hair left little confusion. Parents were vocal in their displeasure in Farina’s decision, waving the Little League rule book under his nose; one adult confronted Pepe in her apartment building’s elevator, telling her she was ruining the activity for everyone.
When Little League forced her out, Pepe didn’t protest. She felt responsible for her teammates and other local players—more than 200 in all—and didn’t want to affect their chances of playing out the season. But Pepe’s parents were livid; a call from the National Organization for Women (NOW) had come at the right time. NOW wanted to file a discrimination suit on behalf of Pepe in New Jersey and wanted her parents’ permission to do so.
They agreed. Forced into an early retirement, Pepe would shortly have her day in court.
Arguing before the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights beginning in May 1972, Little League Vice-President Creighton J. Hale was aghast at NOW’s defense of females in the junior baseball circuit. Girls, he argued, had “weaker” bones and muscles than boys and slower reaction times. Worse, a well-placed hit by a ball to the chest could cause breast cancer.
As Hale and NOW debated that highly dubious science, observers took opposing sides. The New York Yankees publicly backed Pepe, inviting her and her family to a game and making her an honorary "Yankee for a Day"; the Spokane Daily Chronicle’s editorial page ran in the opposite direction and advised Pepe to “give up her foolish, girlish dream of belting one out of Shea Stadium.”
But other girls had started to challenge Little League’s practices. In Newark, Delaware, nine-year-old Kim Green was turned away from the sign-up table at her local team’s tryouts. Her mother was outraged and wanted to file suit, as roughly 20 others had done around the country. Kim ended up on the Mike Douglas Show and teed off on balls pitched by football great Larry Czonka. Another player, Janine Cinseruli, sued for violation of her civil rights and won. Little League suddenly found itself in a pile-up of courtroom appearance and attorneys’ fees.
In May of 1973, presiding hearing officer Sylvia Pressler ruled in favor of NOW and Pepe. Calling her a “very courageous girl,” Pressler stated that there was no compelling reason girls should be ostracized from an American pastime. Declaring the order “outrageous,” Little League appealed, but the state’s Supreme Court upheld Pressler’s decision.
Faced with precedent and increasing litigation, Little League eliminated the gender policy in June 1974, and Little League’s Federal charter was amended in December of that year. (It was too late in the season for Kim Green to try out, so her mother started an all-female team, the Angels, that beat boys’ teams in eight straight games.) The following year, 30,000 females signed up.
A NOW representative called Pepe’s father with the good news, which turned out to be bittersweet. Because the lawsuit had taken nearly two years to play out, 14-year-old Pepe was now too old for the League and its 8-to-12 demographic.
After graduating college, she became a Certified Public Accountant. While she was happy her situation had helped the women that followed her—girls are free to join Little League to this day, with 18 having made it to the World Series—Pepe still felt some disappointment she hadn’t been able to get back on the field.
That changed in 2004, when Little League asked her to throw out the first pitch of the World Series to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the rules change. Pepe agreed, though it was the last time she saw her Young Democrats hat. It’s now in Cooperstown.