Nothing Little About It

Maria Pepe blazed a trail for girls to play youth baseball

March 20, 2012
(NBHOF Library)

Little League Baseball was officially founded in 1939, the same year that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened its doors in Cooperstown, N.Y.

With only three teams in 1939, Little League started small in the neighborhoods of Williamsport, Pa. But by 1947, the Little League board of directors organized a national tournament for the existing 17 teams in the organization. This later became known as the Little League Baseball World Series. By 1964, Little League Baseball was granted a Federal Charter and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Little League’s popularity exploded during the 1940s and 1950s, but two young women who left their mark on the organization do not always find their way into the history books. The first girl to play on an organized Little League team was Kathryn Johnston. In 1950, Kathryn, who played with her hair tucked in her cap and pretended to be a young boy, tried out for a team in Corning, N.Y. After making the team, Kathryn revealed her gender to the manager. She was given the opportunity to play for the team throughout the season. However, the very next year, a special clause was added to the Little League regulations: “Girls are not eligible under any conditions.”

This exclusion may or may not have related directly to Kathryn’s participation, but it formalized the exclusion of all young women from the Little League competition.

Despite these restrictions, from the 1950s through the 1970s, young women played on organized Little League teams across the country. Although technically illegal, it was the decision of each individual manager as to whether to break the rules and let a girl on the team or turn away those young women who wanted to participate.

In 1972, one such girl joined a team in Hoboken, N.J. María Pepe was 12 years old and played for the Young Democrats. After her first three games, she was informed by her coach that she would have to step down as a player or else the team would lose its Little League status. In María’s words, “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. I didn't want to make a hundred kids mad at me, so I had to step down.”

María’s dismissal from her team drew media attention and publicity. This, in turn, drew the attention of the National Organization for Women (NOW). María’s parents received a call from NOW asking if they could represent their daughter in a lawsuit against Little League Baseball. María and her parents agreed and the case dragged on for over two years. In 1973, a New Jersey judge, Sylvia Pressler, decided in favor of María Pepe and in 1974, the ruling was upheld by the Superior Court. That same year, the original Little League Federal Charter was amended to remove the gender rules clause that had prohibited girls from playing. Unfortunately, by the time New Jersey Little Leagues were ordered to admit young women in their organization, María was too old to join the Young Democrats. However, the next year over 30,000 young women signed up to participate on Little League teams across the country.

This past year, eight teams from the United States and eight teams from around the world competed in the 65th Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. Currently, there are 11 World Series tournaments played in various divisions of Little League. It is estimated that over 2.5 million youth athletes are currently participating in the Little League organization.

Thanks to María Pepe, many of those talented athletes are young women. Today, Maria’s Young Democrats cap can be found in the Diamond Dreams exhibit on women and girls in baseball at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Anna Wade is the former director of museum education for the National Baseball  Hall of Fame and Museum