#Shortstops: Maria Pepe changes the face of Little League

Written by: Anna Wade

In the neighborhoods of Williamsport, Pa., Little League Baseball was officially founded with just three teams in 1939. Less than 10 years later, in 1947, the league’s board of directors organized a national tournament for the organization’s 17 existing teams which 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.

At the time of the league’s formation, no rules existed about the genders of the players who participated in the organization. The first girl to play on an organized Little League team was Kathryn Johnston. In 1950, Johnston tried out for a team in Corning, N.Y., by tucking her hair in her cap and pretending to be a young boy. After making the team, Johnston revealed her gender to the manager and was given the opportunity to play for the team throughout the season. However, the next year, a special clause was added to the Little League regulations: “Girls are not eligible under any conditions.”

This clause may or may not have related directly to Johnston’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, 12-year-old Maria Pepe played for the Young Democrats in Hoboken, N.J. After her first three games, she was informed by her coach that she could not play or else the team would lose its Little League status. In Pepe’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.”

Pepe’s dismissal from her team drew media attention and publicity, which in turn, drew the attention of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her parents received a call from NOW asking if they could represent their daughter in a lawsuit against Little League Baseball. The case dragged on for over two years, but in 1973, Sylvia Pressler, a New Jersey judge, decided in favor of Pepe and the in the following year, the ruling was upheld by the Superior Court, forcing the amendment of the original Little League Federal Charter to remove the gender clause.

Unfortunately, by the time New Jersey Little Leagues were ordered to admit young women in their organization, Pepe was too old to play again on the Young Democrats. However, the next year over 30,000 young women signed up to participate on Little League teams across the country.

It is estimated that over 2.5 million youth athletes worldwide currently participate in the Little League organization. Many of those talented athletes are young women who can follow their baseball dreams, thanks to Maria Pepe.

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

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