Meet the Female Little Leaguer Who ‘Helped Open Doors’ for Girls To Play Baseball

Maria Pepe’s desire to play baseball made her a trailblazer on the diamond.

In the summer of 1972, Pepe, then 11, made a Little League team in her hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey — despite Little League Baseball prohibiting girls from playing in the early 1950s.

“When somebody would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always answer that I wanted to be a Yankee,” she told TODAY in an interview that aired Tuesday.

Pepe earned a spot on the roster as a pitcher, but when word got around that she was playing, Little League baseball threatened to take away the team's charter. Pepe was crushed when her coach, Jimmy Farina, had to boot her from the team after playing three games.

"Never accept anyone saying you can’t do something just because you’re a girl.” Maria Pepe told TODAY.

“I think it was hard when Jimmy came to our home and he wanted the uniform back. That was very hard. I got to keep my cap,” she said while fighting back tears.

Pepe’s family, along with the National Organization for Women, decided to take action, suing Little League Baseball for gender discrimination. The New Jersey Superior Court sided with Pepe and the decision was upheld when Little League Baseball appealed the ruling. By 1974, girls could play Little League.

The court’s decision had an immediate impact. The next season, 50 girls in Hoboken tried out to play baseball. By that time, Pepe was 14 and too old to play, but she is grateful she set a path for other girls who followed.

“There is a heartbreak at a young age, but I do get to play forever through all the girls that came after me,” she said while choking up. “And so, that’s a blessing.”

It’s believed more than five million girls have gone to play Little League Baseball since, including Mo’ne Davis, a pitcher who wowed fans with her blazing fastball in the 2014 Little League World Series, and Ella Bruning, who was the only girl to compete in last year’s Little League World Series.

“That makes me happy. I could die tomorrow and know that I helped open doors,” Pepe said.

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Issues & Advice, Title IX The Today Show