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.
“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.
Pepe’s impact has been felt beyond the Little League diamond, too. The hat she was allowed to keep is now on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
“It's hard to not be emotional because I was so young when I was discriminated against because of my gender," Pepe told TODAY during a live interview Tuesday, when she was flanked by 12 members of the all-girls New York Wonders baseball team.
Pepe also said she was fighting for more than the rights for girls interested in playing a sport.
“It really wasn’t about just baseball. It was about what girls should and shouldn’t do in life, and so there was a barrier that seemed like it was very difficult to break through.”
But Pepe explained that she had a "shield" around her and even at such a young age, she knew that she needed to continue to fight — and cheer on other girls to do the same.
“I encourage the girls to believe in themselves and to never accept anyone saying you can’t do something just because you’re a girl.”