[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly important baseball life!]
On two young stars who reflect how much has changed, and why we must remember both.
In 1972, a Hoboken, New Jersey Little League team quietly contributed to sports and American history—the team’s coach, Jim Farina, invited 12 year old Maria Pepe (a baseball fanatic with many friends on the team) to join the team, and she pitched in three games, becoming one of (if not the) first girls to play Little League baseball. Pepe’s presence didn’t remain quiet for long, however—the league threatened to revoke the team’s charter unless she left the team; and although she agreed to do so, the National Organization for Women (NOW) took up the cause, eventually bringing the case to the New Jersey Superior Court which decided in favor of girls having the ability to try out for Little League teams. Unfortunately, Pepe was 14 by the time the case was decided, and thus above the age limit for Little League play. But thanks to her three-game performance and all that followed it, future girls have received the chance to participate in a youth sport that is, as Superior Court Judge Sylvia Presser put it in her decision, “as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason,” Presser added, “why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”
More than 40 years later, Pepe watched with what she admits is a mixture of admiration and pain as the most famous female Little Leaguer to date (and one of the most famous youth athletes in American history), Mo’ne Davis of the Philadelphia-area Taney Dragons, became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series. Thanks to those singular achievements, to her status as the first African American girl to play in the LLWS, and certainly as well to the 24-hour news cycle/social media age in which her successes occurred, Davis has become a genuine sensation: the first Little Leaguer to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, star of a documentary short film directed by Spike Lee, recipient of numerous honors and recognitions (including her LLWS jersey making it to the Hall of Fame), and more. While Maria Pepe left behind her moment of youth sports fame for a career as a hospital accountant and what seems to have been a relatively typical American life (if one punctuated by brief returns to the limelight in response to stories like Davis’s), it’s difficult to imagine that Davis—who apparently prefers basketball to baseball and dreams of playing collegiately for the University of Connecticut and then in the WNBA—will not continue to occupy the public eye in one way or another.
That’s a good thing, to be clear—not only because Davis is a far more deserving and compelling recipient of such attention than many of her fellow media sensations, but also and more importantly because her story reflects how far both youth sports and America have come in the 40 years since the New Jersey Superior Court’s decision (which is not to say there is not much farther to go, of course). Yet at the same time, it’s vitally important that we better remember the Maria Pepes of our history. For every Jackie Robinson, a pioneer who received and has continued to receive well-deserved recognition for his historic role and influence, there are many other figures, in sports as in the rest of society, whose important and inspiring lives and contributions do not occupy such a place in our collective memories. It’s precisely to help us better remember such figures that I am working on my current book and website project, the American Hall of Inspiration. While Maria Pepe’s inspiring contribution might have lasted only three games, its impact and legacy makes her more than worthy of inclusion in such a project, and more importantly in our collective memories.
Guest Post post this weekend,
PS. One more time: what do you think? Other baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?
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