By Briana Vannozzi
“I was very tough. I had this big shield around me and nobody was going to break it,” said Maria Pepe.
Trailblazer is not a trait Pepe would have assigned herself growing up. But at just 11 years old, the shy, self-proclaimed tomboy would change the role of women in sports forever.
“It was sort of a natural encounter to go to the tryouts and see if I can get a chance to try out. I really didn’t think I was doing anything different than what I did in my everyday life,” she said.
Pepe made the cut for Hoboken’s Little League team in 1972. But just three games in she was told to hand in her uniform and hang up her hat. This was pre Title IX time. It was against Little League rules for girls to play. And there was no federal protection. She was threatened by members of the town. Hoboken could lose its Little League charter.
What was that like for her?
“Well it’s tough as a child to have anything taken away from you when you really enjoy something. You know, you feel a little stripped of your identity,” she said.
But others in the community, led by Pepe’s parents, waged a legal battle on her behalf. It was a long shot. The Little League had shut down similar cases in the past. And after two long years — during which time Pepe aged out of the league — she scored. The courts ruled in her favor.
“I just knew in my heart what I was doing was a good thing and I just feel like I had some momentum. Something was carrying me through the whole ordeal ,” she said.
Her baseball cap now sits in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And just recently, this Hoboken city assistant comptroller was honored by her home town. The batting cages at the Fifth Street Little League Park now named in her honor.
“I hope that it does instill in little girls to try anything that they feel they have a talent for and to not be discouraged by others who judge them for what they want to accomplish in their own life,” she said.
She credits her family for sticking by her, even though they’re not all here to see it now.
“My dad is deceased but when other men were telling me to go home, my father was telling me to go play,” she said.
And as for all that struggle? She’s grateful for it now.
“If it promotes children having a better attitude about what their options are then I think it’s done a tremendous purpose in life,” she said.