Maria Pepe, Little League's First Girl
Maria Pepe on her role in opening up Little League to girls and its legacy, four decades later.
Little League's First Girl
Maria Pepe on her role in opening up Little League to girls and the legacy, four decades later.
MARIA PEPE: When I was a young girl and people would say, what do you want to be when you grow up? I used to answer I want to be a Yankee.
I think the day that I was given the permission to have the tryouts for the Hoboken Young Democrats, that was probably the most exciting moment, because I knew I was going to make the team. And I was just so looking forward to having a uniform. I was starting pitcher.
Not everyone realized that I was a girl. My hair was short. So you just saw a couple of small curls hanging out of my baseball cap. It took a little while into that first game before some of the other coaches were saying, hey, wait a minute, Jimmy's got a girl on the team. The rule book says that girls aren't allowed to play.
My coach Jimmy Farina tried to argue with the coaches and say look, Maria's just as good as the boys. Little League issued a letter to the town, if you don't remove Maria, we're going to take the charter away from Hoboken.
My coach said to me, Maria you can come to the games and keep score. Well I have to be honest, I did that for one game. And I could not just sit there and take score, because I wanted to be out there.
The National Organization for Women had read about the story and was fuming at the fact that they let me off the team. And so that's when they filed the suit against Little League with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights claiming that I was being discriminated against because I was a girl.
Thank god for Judge Silvia Pressler because she had the wisdom. What she read in her decision was that the institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. And there's not any reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.
It was the 30th anniversary of the ruling and Little League headquarters asked if I would come to throw the first pitch at the opening day of the Little League World Series. I remember them asking would you mind going down, Dr. Creighton Hale would like to meet you. Well, you know, I took a deep breath. He approached me. And he shook my hand. And he looked at me, and he said, you know, I just want you to know my granddaughter plays.
That's my gift is that I get to see so many girls actually enjoying it and participating and not being discriminated for it, but actually being encouraged to grow in the sport.
MARIA PEPE: I was making new friends basically because we had just moved from a different location in Hoboken. And I was very welcomed by the youngsters. They were all trying to make friends. It was a new neighborhood. And they sort of started being more like brothers to me. I just started participating, playing slap ball or stick ball, tag football. They saw after a while that I could compete with them and play at the level of their playing. And so it just became like a natural that these fellas would always look to me and say, OK, I want Maria on my team.
MARIA PEPE: I don't really know what the word means, like it in its entirety, you know, feminist. I think for me, it means just always being aware that you should be able to do anything you want to do in life and that you shouldn't be judged because of your sex. You can judge me for my ability, for my score, or for whatever else, but not just because of my sex.
MARIA PEPE: Sports, in general, is wonderful for any child to play, even if it comes down to chess. It doesn't have to be an aggressive sport. But I think they learn certain skills playing sports that they wouldn't learn in the classroom. And that's learning how to win and lose, learning how to compete and be defeated or how it feels to be defeated, how it feels to win. I think it teaches you stamina. I definitely believe it teaches you how to be focused. When you're playing the game, you're not thinking about anything else. You're in the game. You know who's on first. You know who's on second. You know who's coming up. And I think to achieve goals in life, you need to be focused.
MARIA PEPE: I used to have these conversations with God. I was brought up very Catholic-- Catholic grammar-- Catholic high. You know, I used to ask God, why did you give me this ability-- because I was really good-- I was a good pitcher-- if I'm not supposed to be doing this. You need to help me as a kid understand this. And I can remember many times wishing when I woke up I would be a boy just because it meant that I was able to do what was going to make me happy. I would be able to be with the friends that I enjoyed being with and doing the things that they were doing. That meant a lot to me.
MARIA PEPE: It was a lot of pressure just getting the attention, being on the news, or reading about your story in the newspaper. Although internally, I felt the energy and the good feelings of playing ball and I never had problems with my friends playing ball, I was sort of being put in a position to say, OK, do I accommodate what everyone is saying I should be doing because then I'm not going to be happy inside? And I can't not be happy. I have to be happy with myself. And so I took the chance to behave the way I was behaving. And you took a lot of heat for that. But at the end, it was really worth the struggle because it had such a positive outcome for other girls after.
MARIA PEPE: The first day that my friends were actually going to the Hoboken young Democrats club to put their name down on the roster that they were interested in signing up for tryouts. And I remember going and Jimmy Farina, who was then the owner of the club and the sponsor of the team, saw that I was with these fellas. And I hesitated before I went into the club because I knew there was this rule in the back of my mind that Little League was really just for boys. However, Jimmy approached me because he saw I had a glove and I had a baseball cap on and I was with my peers. And he said to me, do you think you may be interested in playing? And I looked up at him with big bright eyes and I'm like, absolutely. You think I can try out? That would be wonderful. And he said, sure. Can you play? And he said, what position do you play? And I said, I'm a pitcher. And I think the team needed a couple of new pitchers. So I made it to the second try out and then I was put onto the team.
MARIA PEPE: The person that I honestly never met and that had the biggest influence would have to be Judge Sylvia Pressler. I think it was, like, a silent communication between us, you know. It just-- you look at the pictures of her [? in ?] her decision that [? were ?] in the news. And she was a short little lady, not a big, powerful judge. But yet, she was willing to take the heat. [? And ?] [? yeah, ?] we have to remember she was being challenged by a lot of male counterparts. This was probably an extreme difficult decision. And I hope someday I'll get to meet her in heaven and thank her in person.
MARIA PEPE: You know, in the traditional Italian families, you need a boy to carry the name on. And I always felt like I was maybe a slight disappointment, not to my father and my mother, but to some of the family-- the traditional family members-- because I can remember sometimes hearing, oh, you know, Chief, you were supposed to have a boy. They used to call my father Chief, you know. And what's really cool about my story is that those roots thought I could never carry a name on.
And yet what I did really does leave a name. And it leaves an impression. And so I'm very, very proud of that-- that I was able to help other people in life enjoy life better and just make the world a nicer place, you know, and to carry that Pepe name on even though I wasn't a boy.
MARIA PEPE: I didn't even know that I was being discriminated against-- meaning the word discriminated --because it wasn't something you were taught in school. But I felt it. But I didn't really know how to label it. There is such an old rootedness in American society of women and what their roles should be versus just accepting everyone as a person and not categorizing someone as well, you're a girl and therefore you should do this. That was one of my biggest struggles. I didn't want to be in a category. I didn't want to be locked down, that these were inherited limitations. I needed to feel free, that I could do whatever it was I felt was good for me as a person.
MARIA PEPE: I think back when I was growing up in Hoboken, the athletics for girls was basically non-existent. You had the Girl Scouts or you had cheerleading. And so my athletic ability was threatening what the norm should be. And my parents did take some heat. You should have your-- don't you know girls should be at home helping you do the wash and taking care of the family?
MARIA PEPE: My best advice to someone is if you get knocked down, get back up right away because life is too short and you want to make the best of your life. So you may get disappointed at times. You may not get the job that you wanted or you thought you wanted. But maybe it's for a better reason. Like when I thought I lost, I didn't know that really in the end, I was going to win. And sometimes it's good to lose because maybe there's a greater good.
MARIA PEPE: I do remember the day that the decision was made. My father came over to me and said, you know, Maria, they ruled in your favor. And I think I was relieved that it was over, but I also knew I was too old to play. But I remember my father looking down at me and saying, you know, Maria, you have to think of this, that you opened the doors for all the girls that will come after you. And that's what was always encouraged when you were young is having a greater good.