Women’s History Month is wrapping up and baseball season is approaching–and Maria Pepe has a meaningful stake in both. Pepe vaulted to the front of a national debate about gender and sports in 1972, when the then 11-year-old from New Jersey was forced off her Little League team.
Since 1951–when another girl tried to join–the Little League rulebook had stipulated that girls were “not eligible under any conditions,” but James Farina, a coach of the Young Democrats of the Hoboken Little League, noticed Pepe’s talent and let her try out anyway. Her career as a pitcher got off to a promising start, but it turned out to be too much for other coaches, who began calling for her dismissal, and the national Little League organization, which threatened that her league could be disqualified. According to Forbes, her family was harassed and she was subjected to taunts and bullying until–after just three games–she agreed to quit.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The National Organization for Women (NOW) noticed the local headlines and filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Little League on Pepe’s behalf. (NOW was already campaigning to pass Title IX, which would guarantee equal access to educational opportunities–including sports–for women.)
The trial dragged on for more than a year, but the court eventually ruled in favor of NOW and Pepe. “The institution of Little League Baseball is as American as the hot dog and apple pie,” the judge wrote. “There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”
Pepe’s Little League career was cut short, but she went on to play softball in each of her four years of college. As Hoboken magazine HMag reports, she now works for the City of Hoboken–in the same building as James Farina, the coach who once took a chance on her.