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The Woman Who Changed the Face of Little League Baseball

Maria Pepe paved the way for females in the sport

“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.

Critics see that as chicken-or-egg logic, but interest in girls’ and women’s softball has exploded since 1974. The Amateur Softball Association, which has been around since the 1930s, has some 1.1 million players on about 90,000 teams in the United States. NCAA softball, which is women only, has grown from 416 collegiate teams and more than 7,400 players in 1981-1982 to 950 teams and more than 17,000 players in 2007-2008. There are five professional women’s fast-pitch teams, but there is no women’s NCAA baseball, nor is there professional women’s baseball.

Her Little League hopes dashed, Pepe played high school basketball, and then made a somewhat uncomfortable switch to softball in college. She played varsity at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey and also played in two other recreational leagues, at second base—never able to master softball pitching. Given today’s circumstances, she says, she’d probably pick softball with its potential for scholarship money and its hint of a future after college.

Pepe earned a master’s degree in finance and became a certified public accountant, working for 22 years as the controller at Hackensack University Medical Center. Last February, looking for a less work-centered life, she became assistant comptroller for the city of Hoboken. By coincidence, her Little League coach, Jim Farina, the man who took a chance on her in 1972, is Hoboken’s city clerk.

“Every time I see her I sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ ” says Farina, 62. “What strikes me,” he continues, “she took it in stride, what happened, but never forgot. She always got involved in different causes as far as women are concerned. She didn’t retreat from what happened.”

Since changing jobs, Pepe has started thinking about accepting the Hoboken Little League’s long-standing offer to have her coach. Not softball. “I would do the baseball,” she says.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Kayla Morrissette cracked a double that sent two runners home, effectively winning the game for her team. She closed the day with 16 strikeouts in the regulation six innings.

“I am so proud of you,” Pepe told her afterward. “That was a great game.”

“That’s cool,” says Kayla, when her father explains who Pepe is.

It’s OK that young girls like Kayla may not recognize her. “I pass a field, if I see girls playing. They don’t know who I am. I don’t promote who I am. I walk over to the fence. I watch them. I walk away. It’s sort of like a healing,” Pepe says. “I get to play through all these girls. I kind of get to play forever.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a writer and baseball fan in Connecticut.