Let’s talk about Maria Pepe.
If you are anything like I was, you’ve probably not heard of Maria Pepe. I stumbled across an article about her a few months ago while looking up images of vintage baseball hats for women because we were about to launch Bahadu.
I found a black and white picture from 1972 of an 11 year old girl in a gray flannel baseball cap bearing the initials of her Little League Team. I’d come to learn that girl was Maria Pepe. She only played 3 games as a pitcher for her team, the Young Democrats of Hoboken, New Jersey. When word of her being on the team reached the Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pennsylvania they threated to revoke her team’s charter if she continued to play.
Not wanting to risk the Little League participation of 100 boys across her city she turned in her uniform to her coach, Jimmy Farina. Coach Farina has said that, “…Maria was a good player, and to me, if someone could play baseball that was it.” Sadly, for Maria the national leadership of the Little League organization was not as fair-minded. Farina told her she could “keep [her] cap and you can keep score” but it was just too much for Maria to be in the presence of the sport she loved (and was good at) yet wasn’t allowed to play.
Legal action was taken on her behalf and the National Organization for Women (NOW) got involved and supported her case. Maria stated that, “At 11, I didn’t understand legal matters. All I knew was that I was being taken away from my friends and something I enjoyed doing and I wondered if I was doomed from doing other things I wanted to do in life.”
The New Jersey Superior Court decided that Little League baseball must allow girls to try out. Sylvia Pressler, a hearing officer with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights wrote in her ruling, “the institution of Little League is as American as hotdogs and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.” Sadly, by the time the court case was decided Maria was too old for the league, but Maria’s loss was not in vain.
The legal action and New Jersey’s decision likely influenced the Supreme Court’s intermediate scrutiny of gender discrimination claims and the 1975 federal regulations that assured Title IX of the Education Amendments.
It’s ironic that Maria wondered if she was, “doomed from doing other things [she] wanted to do in life,” since it was through her courage and fortitude, she ended up changing the landscape for all subsequent generations of female athletes in America.
In 2004, Maria was invited to throw out the first pitch at the Little League World Series. She was seated near, Dr. Creighton J. Hale (a former chief of the Little League organization and one of the biggest opponents to the girls’ inclusion in the league 30 years prior.) He leaned over to Maria and said, “I just want you to know, my granddaughter plays.”
It seemed fitting to feature Maria Pepe’s story for Inspirational Woman Wednesday. A lot of us owe her a debt of gratitude if we enjoyed the opportunity to play team sports growing up. And after all, our company slogan is, “be happy doing you,” which was all Maria wanted. She wanted simply to play the sport that made her happy.
Abrams, Douglas E., The Twelve-Year-Old Girl's Lawsuit that Changed America: The Continuing Impact of NOW v. Little League Baseball, Inc. at 40. 20 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 1 (Winter 2012); University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2013-17. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2313315
Forbes.com – Christina Settini – “Before Title IX There Was Maria Pepe Waiting ‘His Turn At Bat.’” and the above photo appeared in that article courtesy of Maria Pepe.
Espn.com – Melissa Issacson – “The Girl Who Toppled Little League” (2012)