Maria Pepe fought for the right to play Little League baseball in Hoboken in 1972 after she was sidelined by officials simply because she was a girl.
As a member of the Hoboken Young Democrats Club Little League team, Pepe pitched for three games before she was told her participation could lead to the Hoboken Little League losing their charter.
When the news of her fight spread throughout the country, the National Organization for Women (NOW) took Pepe’s side to help her break the gender barrier and play ball. The legal battle took two years, but the New Jersey Supreme Court ultimately ruled that girls should be able to play in the Little League.
“The hardest thing I ever did was sit on the sidelines after three games.” – Maria Pepe
When Kay Massar, of California, saw the controversy over Pepe in 1974, she sent newspaper clippings to Little League officials documenting her season – in 1950. She was the first girl to have played, according to a July 20, 2011 article by Selena Roberts in Sports Illustrated. But Massar’s Little League career had some major differences from Pepe’s.
Massar tried out for her California Little League team pretending to be a boy. The magazine article also notes that Massar had another secret: She was 14, two years older than the allowable age for Little League participants. After Massar played, the rules changed, and girls weren’t allowed at all.
A new book called “Play Ball” about the Little League lists Massar as the first girl to play, but since she was 14 years old when she signed up, Hoboken City Clerk James Farina, who was Pepe’s former Little League manager, believes the credit should still go to the Hoboken resident.
Farina begs to differ
“Maria was really a pioneer, opening the door for women to play Little League,” Farina said last week. “Whose case did NOW take to the Supreme Court? Who fought to change the rules?”
He said he intends to write a letter to Sports Illustrated and the Little League.
Pepe isn’t the type of woman who seeks recognition for her fight to play baseball.
She currently works in the Finance Department at Hoboken City Hall. Before that, she worked at a hospital in Hackensack. She said none of her colleagues knew about her battle to play Little League until a newspaper ran a front page story about her years ago.
Pepe said she was contacted by the author of the Sports Illustrated piece but didn’t wish to comment, saying she didn’t know how to respond to what she was told.
“I was rather disappointed when I read the story,” Pepe said. “My story of playing ball wasn’t exactly fun. Mine was one of hardship and struggle to break a barrier.”
The Sports Illustrated article notes that Massar is pushing forward a book deal and a stalled movie project about her experience. Massar, according to the magazine article, kept her age a secret until recently.
How’d she do it?
Hoboken’s baseball history goes back to June 19, 1846, when the first officially recorded, organized baseball game was played on the Elysian Fields near the waterfront.
Farina said the Hoboken Little League story started in 1972 when he hosted sign-ups for a tryout.
“All of the boys registered, and anybody who wanted to play came to meet us at the club,” Farina said. “A group of three or four boys came up to me and said someone outside wanted to play. I said, send him in. They said it was a girl, and I said, okay, well, send her in.”
Farina remembers that Pepe was afraid to come into the club.
“I told her I would treat her equally and she’d have to try out,” Farina said. “But she was amazing. She could catch; she could pitch; and she could hit.”
Pepe pitched and played the outfield for three games.
“Then all hell broke loose,” Farina said.
The Hoboken Little League president said the team was in violation of the rules.
“But she played better than some of the boys,” Farina said.
Parents became involved and called for the formation of a separate girls’ league. Pressure also came down from the officials in the county district.
“I said, I’m going to keep her on the team,” Farina said. “I don’t care if they take the Little League charter away.”
Pepe was later told by officials that she couldn’t play, so after three games, she stayed in the dugout and kept the scorebook.
The story became national news, and NOW took the case all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“I was praying they’d make a decision soon in court so I could go out there and play,” Pepe said. “The hardest thing I ever did was sit on the sidelines after three games.”
After testimony about discrimination, and even scientific presentations about growth development of boys versus girls at age 12, the Supreme Court ruled that girls could play Little League baseball.
Pepe’s baseball cap sits in Cooperstown, N.Y. in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and she has received many honors for her fight. Her battle to play was even featured in an ESPN list of top achievements in women’s sports.
Pepe said she feels a sense of pride when she walks by a Little League field and observes girls playing.
She said in her day, “There was a mark on girls that played sports, like they were a ‘tomboy.’ Now, girls go out and play sports and nobody thinks twice.”
Pepe went on to play softball at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City.
She said she doesn’t want to create a firestorm, but feels some obligation to ask the officials at the Little League to review the situation to decide who was officially the first girl to play Little League baseball.
“Out of respect for all the people that fought for me, I feel like I should say something to the Little League,” Pepe said. “I won’t want to leave this world without making the effort.”
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com