Cause of Choice: National Women's History Museum
Early Career Ambitions: To be a Yankee
Sources of Inspiration: Billie Jean King, Mickey Mantel, and Babe Ruth
Oddball: Her parents bought her baseballs and basketballs as gifts growing up even though it broke social norms at the time.
It’s the three-game Little League pitching career “heard ‘round the world.” Maria Pepe was eleven years old when the neighborhood boys with whom she had been playing sandlot baseball brought her forward as a prospect for Hoboken Little League. By pitching in the spring of 1972, she became the first girl in more than two decades to even try to participate in one of America’s most beloved youth pastimes. Little League’s national powers-that-be moved quickly to remove her from competition. "The hardest part,” she would later recall, “was when they took my uniform away.” The National Organization for Women brought a 1973 suit on behalf of Pepe’s right to play and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights sided with the young pitcher, whom Judge Sylvia Pressler called a "very, very courageous girl." The case moved up the courts and over the following year she and her family endured scrutiny and even threats and intimidation. Some encouragement came from the local team across the river: the New York Yankees named her “Yankee For A Day” as the controversy dragged on.
The New Jersey Superior Court eventually ruled, in 1974, that Little League must allow girls to play. The decision came too late to save Pepe’s own Little League career, but opened up the game and changed the lives of millions of girls. Pepe went on to earn a bachelor’s and business degree and to serve as Controller of the Hackensack University Medical Center. In 2004, she got a second chance to ascend the pitching mound when she threw the ceremonial first ball at that year’s Little League World Series.