Jimmy Farina figured she wouldn't show up.
On a spring day in 1972, Farina stood in the lobby of the Young Democrats Club in Hoboken, N.J., passing out registration forms for the Little League team he coached when a group of neighborhood boys tumbled in. The leader of the group told Farina they needed one more form, but there was a catch: It was for a girl who was waiting outside. "Can she play?" asked Farina. The boys nodded. Farina summoned 11-year-old Maria Pepe and handed her a registration slip, but he doubted that the girl who was too scared to speak to him would ever come to tryouts.
Maria didn't just show up—she dominated. After seeing her scoop up grounders, shag flies and fire fastballs from the mound, he handed Maria a number 9 jersey, thinking he had added a player, not ignited a controversy. But opposing coaches and parents protested Maria's participation, citing a Little League bylaw that allowed only boys ages eight through 12 to play. After the Young Dems' third game, Farina received a call from Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa.: Drop Maria from your roster or your league will lose its charter. He refused, but Maria didn't want to jeopardize her friends' chance to play. So the girl who asked for bats for birthdays and gloves for Christmas reluctantly handed over her gray jersey. Farina told her she could keep her cap.
The National Organization for Women told Maria she should be allowed to keep it all, especially her roster spot. With the support of Maria's parents, Patsy and Angie, NOW filed a lawsuit on her behalf against Little League in New Jersey's Division on Civil Rights. On Nov. 7, 1973, after Maria had become too old to play, Civil Rights examiner Sylvia Pressler rejected arguments made by lawyers for Little League, among them that girls might suffer from breast cancer if they were to get hit in the chest with a ball. "Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie," Pressler wrote in her ruling. "There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls."
In the wake of the passage of Title IX, similar lawsuits against Little League were being filed around the country, and in 1974 the organization amended its charter to include female players "because of the changing social climate." Since then, roughly 10 million girls have donned Little League uniforms. Maria, now a 51-year-old assistant comptroller for the city of Hoboken, feels a burst of pride every time she drives by her old Little League field and sees a ponytail swinging from the back of a cap.
COURTESY MARIA PEPE
DIAMOND GIRL While Maria played just three games for the Young Dems, the lawsuit she won has helped lead to the participation of about 10 million female Little Leaguers.