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Landmark Decision Allowed Girls to Play Little League

That, in turn, drew the attention of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

"The newspapers were all doing stories about it, and then my parents got a call from NOW," she said. "They asked my parents if they (NOW) could represent me in a case that could get Little League to admit girls. Now, I come from a very traditional Italian family, and it shocked my folks that I even wanted to play baseball. But I always thought God gave me certain talents for a reason, and I thought, 'I always play sandlot ball with the boys, why not in a uniform?' So my folks finally decided to let NOW go ahead."

The case dragged on for more than two years, as did similar cases around the U.S., in many instances supported by NOW.

"I can remember coming home every day from school, asking my mom if they made a decision," Miss Pepe said. "I was just 12, so I didn't understand at the time what was taking so long. Of course, by the time it was decided, I was in high school and too old for Little League."

The final ruling came in early 1974 when local Little Leagues in New Jersey were told they must allow girls to try out. Instead of resisting further, Little League decided to not only admit girls worldwide, but to create a softball program for girls only.

Maria went on to play basketball and softball in high school, and then played varsity softball at St. Peters College, a Jesuit school in New Jersey where she earned a business degree. She is a CPA and is controller at the Hackensack University Medical Center, a 6,000-employee hospital where she has worked for the past 18 years.

Miss Pepe has agreed to be a guest of Little League Baseball at the 58th Little League Baseball World Series in August 2004. She will be honored for helping to blaze the way for millions of girls -- not only in Little League, but also in other aspects of life for which girls and women were previously thought to be unsuitable.

Her experience, in fact, ranks fifth on ESPN's list of the greatest moments in U.S. women's sports history. (See the entire list here)

"Once in a while, I get invited to talk at a school about it, and kids really love hearing the story -- boys and girls," she said. "I feel good inside about what happened, even though I only got to play three games. I think the experience made me a different person, a stronger person.

"I always felt like, someday, this was all going to come full circle. It was never my way to reach out to anyone, but just to talk to people who came to me about it, if they wanted to. I was just a shy kid who wanted to play baseball. I can't tell you how grateful I am, and how thrilled I am about coming to the World Series...I always dreamed about that."

The specific date and time that Miss Pepe will be honored will be announced sometime next year. She also has agreed to loan the glove and hat she wore in her three Little League games to the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum for display, so that thousands of boys and girls can learn firsthand about her experience. The new display on the roots of girls' participation in Little League is expected to debut in the spring of 2004.

"We're pleased that Maria will be joining us at the World Series," Mr. Keener said. "Many people take an entire lifetime to make an impact on the world, and Maria Pepe did that as a 12-year-old. Every girl who aspires to play sports owes her a debt of gratitude."