So there they were, three women of influence who had their lives changed and influenced by the game of baseball, all together for the very first time.
When Maria Pepe read the article about young Mackenzie Brown of Bayonne pitching a perfect game in the Bayonne Little League a few weeks ago, the first-ever girl to play Little League baseball anywhere was thoroughly excited.
“I saw the article and it really inspired me,” said Pepe, who was the first to break the gender barrier in Little League baseball when she played for the Young Democrats of the Hoboken Little League in 1972. “It brought back a nice little spark. It brought back so many memories for me. I knew that I wanted to meet Mackenzie. I was just waiting in the wings for the opportunity to get to meet her.”
A few years ago, Pepe reached out to a young lady in upstate New York who had pitched a no-hitter in Little League, a young lady by the name of Kate Brownell.
But this time, when Pepe read about Mackenzie Brown’s incredible achievement, she realized that this took place close to home.
“All I needed was a contact,” Pepe said. “I’ve done a lot of outreach to young ladies who have played baseball over the years, but when I saw Mackenzie, I knew one thing. I said, `There is my hero.’”
A few phone calls were made, reaching out to Pepe and another former standout baseball player, Crystal Vargas, who made history a few years ago, when she became the first New Jersey female to ever play against the boys in a varsity baseball game.
Vargas pitched for Marist High School for three seasons and once pitched a no-hitter in a game against Snyder, becoming the first girl in the United States to ever pitch a no-hitter in a varsity baseball game.
Vargas, now a teacher at Marist and the assistant softball coach at New Jersey City University, definitely wanted to be a part of the baseball celebration.
So Pepe and Vargas agreed to go to the Bayonne Little League field to meet and greet the latest of the great female baseball players to grace the fields of Hudson County. It was a collection of three generations of baseball standouts, all momentous newsmakers in their own right.
It was Pepe who enabled every other girl in the country the legal right to play Little League with and against the boys. While she was a 12-year-old in 1972, she was told by Little League officials in Williamsport, Pa. that she was not eligible to play for her team in the Hoboken Little League, that Little League baseball was strictly for boys. There was no place for girls, the officials said and there was a court injunction prohibiting Pepe from playing.
The incident began to receive national media attention. The National Organization For Women (NOW) filed a civil rights lawsuit on her behalf, claiming sexual discrimination. The case was litigated in courts for more than two years and eventually went to New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled in 1974 that Little League baseball had to allow both girls and boys, ages 8 through 12, to play in Little League.
While it was a major victory for all young women, Pepe was 14 at the time and too old to continue her Little League dream.
“When the ruling came out, I cried and cried, because it was bitter sweet,” Pepe said. “I couldn’t get out there to play again. I had to give back the uniform. That was so hurtful. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to play baseball. I wanted to play with the boys. At first, softball was a step back for me, but I eventually learned to love to play softball.
Added Pepe, “I didn’t set out to break a barrier. It just happened. I knew that there was no reason that they should keep girls out.”
Pepe eventually went on to play softball at St. Peter’s College, where she had a great career. After working for more than two decades as a controller at Hackensack University Medical Center, she is now the assistant controller for the city of Hoboken.
Ironically, she now works at City Hall with her old Little League coach, City Clerk Jimmy Farina, the guy who first gave her a chance to play Little League baseball.
“I don’t think Little League ever envisioned how big it would get for girls,” Pepe said.
Now, there are more than 500,000 girls nationwide that participate in Little League baseball, thanks to the efforts and persistence of Maria Pepe.
Five years ago, Pepe said that things came full circle, when she was invited by Little League baseball to throw out the first pitch at the opening ceremonies for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling allowing girls to play.
“It was a great thing that they welcomed me,” Pepe said. “When I was a kid, I thought that Little League was a little angry with me because I created such chaos. One of the men who was against me playing back then came down and shook my hand and said, ‘Because of you, my granddaughter plays Little League.’ It was a healing moment for me.”
After hearing Pepe’s story, young Mackenzie Brown was speechless.
“That’s really amazing,” she said.
Vargas life in baseball also began in Little League, first playing in the Greenville American Little League in Jersey City. Vargas didn’t have to handle the adversity of being an outsider when she started playing because there were other girls who played before her, thanks to the efforts of Pepe.
“It was pretty much accepted by the time I played Little League,” said Vargas, now 25. “It was only after graduating from Little League that it got more difficult.”
Vargas didn’t want to play softball after Little League. She wanted to play baseball and she did, playing in the Greenville-West Side Babe Ruth League, the Jersey City Recreation Stars of Tomorrow and the Jersey City Rockets, a team formed by her father, Glen.
“I played for a number of teams when I was 13 and 14,” Vargas said. “It’s when I got to high school when it really got tough.”
Vargas bucked the odds and was determined to be a baseball player at Marist High School.
“I guess I was different because I was a pitcher,” Vargas said. “If I was a position player, it might have been harder. My teammates accepted me, but there were times the opposing team would start the name calling. They had a choice. They could either try to hit me or not.”
Vargas managed to play baseball for her entire career at Marist. In 2000, as a junior, she became the first girl in the nation to ever pitch a no-hitter in a varsity baseball game.
“I guess that was the highlight of my career, but I remember one day even more,” Vargas said. “I was dating a kid from Ferris at the time named Jimmy Hernandez and I struck him out and got a hit off him in the same game. We’re still friends and I hold it against him to this day.”
Even though she never played softball in high school, Vargas managed to secure a scholarship to Rutgers University to play softball. She attended a few talent camps and combines to get noticed. She eventually had a brilliant career at Rutgers, setting a host of new school records and earning All-Big East honors. She also played for the Puerto Rican National Softball team in 2004.
“Baseball has made me who I am,” said Vargas, who is also an accomplished percussionist and has played for recording artists like Kat Deluna and Wycleff Jean. “I am the person I am today because of baseball. I learned about success. I learned about adversity. I learned what life is all about. It set me up for the rest of my life. Baseball made me a leader and helped me reach my potential in life. All of my experiences in life come from playing baseball.”
Young Mackenzie Brown was floored when she heard the stories of Pepe and Vargas.
“It made me realize that I’m doing the right thing,” Brown said. “I’m inspired by them and hopefully I can keep playing baseball.”
Brown said that she remembered her older brother playing against two girls in Little League and both are now standout softball players at Bayonne High School, namely the extremely versatile Lisa Rovatsos and Tara Flynn.
“I saw them play and wanted to play as well,” Brown said.
Pepe and Brown had something else in common. When Pepe was told she could no longer play Little League, she was invited by the New York Yankees’ general manager Lee McPhail to come to Yankee Stadium. Brown just recently threw out a first pitch at a Mets’ game at CitiField.
Brown said that she loved meeting the two important women of baseball.
“It was a good feeling,” Brown said. “It’s a little weird, knowing that there are people out there who look up to me. I guess this is proof that girls can play if they really want to.”
Brown said that there’s already a girl in the Bayonne Little League who has been inspired by her achievements.
“There’s a girl on my brother Matthew’s team who said that she wants to be like me,” Brown said. “That was a good feeling. I think this is proof that baseball isn’t just for boys.”
Make that big-time proof.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.