Both boys and girls can play Little League today. But it was not that way in 1972 when Hoboken native Maria Pepe took the mound and pitched in three games for the Hoboken Young Democrats Club Little League team.
After those games, she was told by the national organization that she could no longer play because she was a girl.
Hoboken City Clerk James Farina, Pepe’s coach at the time, supported her wholeheartedly, but the Mile Square City’s charter was threatened if Pepe didn’t stop playing.
Pepe’s supporters, namely the National Organization for Women (NOW), commenced a legal battle to break the gender barrier and in 1974 were successful – opening the doors for girls all over the country to play LL baseball. Unfortunately, by then she was 14 years old, too old for Little League.
This past Saturday, April 16, the City of Hoboken observed the historic victory at the start of a new baseball and softball season. They held a ceremony naming the batting cages at Fifth Street near the Little League field after Pepe.
Pepe currently works for the city of Hoboken.
“My parents taught me in life what matters is how you play the game, not how many home runs you hit,” an emotional Pepe said in her speech at the ceremony. “What you do is measured in how it impacts others.”
Pepe, or “Peps,” who also played right field, says that at the time of the controversy she simply wanted to take the field.
“I grew up playing with the boys,” she said in an interview following Saturday’s event. “I just wanted to play baseball.”
Pepe’s affinity for the sport hasn’t wavered. Her all-time favorite players, which emphasize her specific love for baseball and not softball, are Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter.
According to Little League.org, since Pepe’s case proved triumphant, millions of girls have played Little League in the U.S and 18 in the Little League World Series.
In 2004, she threw the ceremonial first pitch at the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa. The glove Pepe wore in 1972 is in the Little League Museum in Williamsport and her cap at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“I think it was a longtime coming and I appreciate Mayor [Dawn] Zimmer and the City of Hoboken for recognizing her achievements,” said Farina. “We hope people [will see the sign and learn her story].”
Hoboken itself is generally recognized as the location of the first officially-recorded organized baseball game at the Elysian Fields near Eleventh Street on the waterfront on June 19, 1846.
Bitter irony but sweet victory
When Farina was hosting signups for Hoboken’s Little League in the early 1970s, he was approached by a group of boys who said a girl wanted to try out.
Farina remembers her swiftly exceeding all expectations and ranking among the top players on the team.
However, pressure came down from parents and county officials when it was discovered that the team was breaking the league rules.
He was quick to shrug them off, but Farina was soon forced to place Pepe in the dugout.
Then the controversy gained national media attention. Her battle to play was even featured in an ESPN list of top achievements in women’s sports.
Pepe distinctly recalls the turbulent times surrounding her case, which reached the Supreme Court.
“I’d come home and my mom would have newspaper articles and I’d say ‘I don’t want to read them,’ ” she said. “They were too sensitive for me at the time. I didn’t think it’d become such a dispute. It’s one thing to say you’re a girl you’re dismissed. [It’s another] to analyze a girl’s bones and physical and mental abilities.”
Pepe didn’t want to know the actual content of the case, “just the results.” For her, a resounding yes only made sense.
“If girls were not meant to play baseball, why would God make it so we could play so well?” Pepe remembered thinking when she was little. “I believed in my heart that my wish would come true.”
Pepe went on to play softball at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City.
“It was difficult for me to transition pitching because I was so used to throwing overhand,” she said. “But I continued to play baseball on my own time.”
Pepe, who currently works as the city’s assistant comptroller, still attends local games on a regular basis.
“They don’t know who I am but I kind of like it that way,” said Pepe. “To know I played a big part in bettering the game I love so much feels great.”
Steven Rodas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.