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The Woman Who Changed the Face of Little League Baseball

Maria Pepe paved the way for females in the sport

Back to Play Ball! Main PageKayla Morrissette rears back on her lanky 12-year-old legs, stretches her long right arm and screams a strike past yet another pint-size batter.

“She’s got a good stretch,” exclaims Maria Pepe, sitting in the stands in Hoboken, N.J., grinning like a proud godmother. In fact the two had only met a half hour before, but in a way Pepe is Kayla’s godmother. Pepe is the reason the girl is even on this Little League field on a warm Saturday, smoking pitches past a team full of boys.

It was Pepe’s presence 35 years ago on an earlier, grittier incarnation of this very field—with its million-dollar view of lower Manhattan—that resulted in the first girls being allowed to officially play Little League.

“Reporters would ask, ‘Why do you want to play baseball?’ ” Pepe says with a laugh. “I used to think, ‘Why do you think all these other kids want to play baseball?’

“When you’re 11 you just want to play ball, you’re not thinking ‘Oh, I’m gonna break a sex barrier for Little League.’ ”

Pepe, who was a pitcher, played only three games in 1972, before being forced off her Young Democrats team when the Little League threatened to revoke Hoboken’s charter. But the ensuing lawsuit by the National Organization for Women—fought for nearly two years against the backdrop of the newly enacted Title IX legislation, which banned sex discrimination in schools, including athletics—changed the landscape of bat-and-ball sports for females. Still, even now, there are those who say the landscape hasn’t changed enough.

Pepe, now 49, suffered indignities back then, not from the boys, but from adults who accused her of ruining Little League. Time has given her an apartment full of memorabilia, scrapbooks of articles, memories and honors she never anticipated, including her cap enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and her glove on display at the Little League museum in Williamsport, Pa. While she occasionally tears up when talking about what happened, time has also slowly allowed her to make some peace with her bittersweet victory so many years ago.

“I remember the day their ruling came out,” she says. “The NOW had called to tell my father. He said, ‘Honey, I want you to know that they ruled in your favor.’ And I looked at my father and I said, ‘You know, Dad, that’s great, but now I’m too old to play.’ And he kinda knew that, and he looked at me and he said, ‘But honey, you gotta realize all the girls who will come after you.’ ”

But many of the girls who came after her did not wind up in baseball. At the time Little League let girls into baseball, it also started a softball division, and at the end of last season girls accounted for more than 99 percent of the 360,000 youngsters playing Little League softball but only about 10 percent of the more than 2.2 million youngsters playing Little League baseball. In Hoboken, Kayla Morrissette is one of only two girls on the 12 teams.

“They decided to ignore the spirit of the law by creating softball programs as a place to admit girls,” says Donna Lopiano, former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, women’s athletic director at the University of Texas for 17 years and now president of Sports Management Resources. “It was a methodical push of girls into softball.”

Lopiano was the top pick of a Little League baseball team in her hometown of Stamford, Conn., in the late 1950s. “They told me I couldn’t play while I was in line for a uniform,” she says. She went on to play softball, making it to the National Softball Hall of Fame. As chair of the women’s baseball committee of the International Baseball Federation, she is helping to develop a strategic plan to continue the growth of girls’ baseball leagues worldwide.

Baseball opportunities are minimal for females beyond the 12-year-old age division, says Stephen Keener, Little League’s president and CEO. “If somehow or other there could be a viable opportunity for teenage girls, you’d see more activity at the lower levels,” he says.

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