The lifelong Hoboken resident has been invited to throw out the first pitch during the opening ceremonies for this year's Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., Friday morning - some 30 years after Pepe challenged the gender barrier and became the first girl to ever play Little League baseball.
In 1972, Pepe became a very historic figure when she became the first girl to ever play organized Little League baseball, setting off a firestorm that ended up in the Supreme Court and eventually opening the door for more than 480,000 young ladies who play Little League baseball today.
At the time, Pepe was 12 years old and had no idea that she was going to make history. All she wanted to do was play baseball with the rest of her friends - something that officials in Little League baseball didn't want to happen.
"I just loved to play and just wanted the chance to play," Pepe said.
Pepe would always play in stickball and Wiffle ball games in Hoboken with and against the boys. However, when it came time to register for the Hoboken Little League, she thought she might have to be relegated to the role of a spectator.
However, Jim Farina, the current city clerk who was the coach of the Little League's Young Democrats team, recognized Maria's talents and allowed her to try out. Sure enough, she made the team and became the first girl to ever play Little League, making the team as a pitcher. Pepe was talented enough that she pitched three games for the Young Democrats.
However, Pepe's inclusion caused a furor within the league - and beyond. A protest was lodged by an opposing coach. Parents forced league officials to decide what to do with young Maria.
Eventually, the international Little League headquarters in Williamsport got involved and ruled that Pepe should be removed from the team or Hoboken Little League could face losing its Little League charter.
A league official went to Pepe's home and told her that her days as a player were over.
"I was stripped of my uniform because I was a girl, not because of an inability to play," Pepe said. "As a 12-year-old, I couldn't stand up for myself, and that really hurt."
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 Superior 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.
It was believed that there were hard feelings between Little League baseball officials and Pepe, because of the lawsuit and the controversy, but she remained the same through it all.
"I was just a kid back then," Pepe said. "I just wanted to play. I didn't know what was going to happen. I have all these memories of being judged from so many angles. I just wanted to go back out there and play."
Pepe also didn't want to cause controversy.
"I was always fearful of causing a commotion," Pepe said. "I never realized what the outcome would be."
Pepe continued to play competitive sports in recreation leagues and eventually earned a scholarship to play softball at St. Peter's College. But there was always something missing in her life - the closure with the organization that helped to make her famous.
In April, Pepe received a phone call from the Little League organizers. They wanted to do something special in recognition of the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling, allowing girls to play Little League baseball.
"When they reached out to me and invited me to throw out the first ball, I felt like I had finally come full circle," Pepe said. "I figured it was only a matter of time before they reached out to me. I guess they felt this is the right time, with the 30th anniversary and all. It's a nice gesture. I'm humbled and honored. I knew deep in my heart that a day like this would eventually happen."
When Pepe received word that she was throwing out the first pitch in Friday's opening ceremonies, she was elated.
"I'm pretty excited about it," Pepe said. "My family will take the ride out with me and be there with me. I'm really humbled by the whole thing. It's going to be an accomplishment for me just being there."
But Pepe wanted to make sure she was ready for the challenge of throwing the pitch.
"I called my brother, Mark, and asked him if he would have a catch with me," Pepe said. "I was nervous. I hadn't thrown a baseball in a long time. I know it's only a 46-foot pitch, but I had to throw a strike. And the pressure's on, with all 16 teams in the World Series watching me."
Not to mention the national television audience from ESPN.
"So my brother went to Liberty State Park and threw with me for a while," Pepe said. "I felt great. I felt like a little kid. It's something you never forget, like riding a bike."
Pepe said that she is going to Williamsport to throw that pitch in honor of her parents.
"My mom [Angie] will be 80 next week," Pepe said. "She's coming with me. I wish my dad [Patsy] could be there. He died a while back. This is for them. They stuck with me when I wanted to play and through all the questioning when I challenged the ruling. I had one on each side of me. I'm so indebted to their support. So if I'm pitching for my parents, I have to make sure it's a good pitch."
Pepe, who now works as a controller for Hackensack University Medical Center, said that she has been following the Little League World Series regional games on television, including the Owensboro, Ky. team that made the Series, which has a female first baseman named Meghan Sims.
"There is a God that there are little girls like Meghan Sims playing in the World Series," Pepe said. "I think there have been 10 girls to play in a World Series game, so there's been a trickle-down effect with the girls."
But being the first of approximately 480,000 girls playing Little League baseball nationwide is quite an accomplishment.
"Looking at the history of it, I guess it's pretty remarkable," Pepe said. "If I could just put my uniform on again as I went on the field, that would be really exciting. But it's going to be very special for me. It's my chance to bring some closure to it all. I've come full circle."
Last year, after being inducted into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame, Pepe was featured in an HBO special "Barrier Breakers in Women's Sports," highlighting all the women who broke ground in women's sports, like Billie Jean King.
Also last year, ESPN Magazine made a list of the 10 most important moments in the history of women's sports and Pepe breaking the gender barrier in Little League baseball ranks as the No. 5 moment all-time, a list that included President Nixon signing Title IX into law, Billie Jean King winning the "Battle of the Sexes," the U.S. women's soccer team winning the World Cup, and Wilma Rudolph winning three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics.
Pepe's achievement was ranked ahead of Amelia Earhart's solo flights, drag racer Shirley Muldowney, Indy car driver Janet Guthrie, jockey Julie Krone and golfer/Olympian Babe Didrickson Zaharias' setting four world records at an AAU world championship meet.
"We're pleased that Maria will be joining us at the World Series," said Stephen D. Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball Inc., in a statement. "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."
And even today, when a standout like North Bergen's Angelique Nieves tears up the District 7 All-Star Tournament like she did this summer, she has Hoboken's Maria Pepe to thank for giving her the shot some three decades ago.
When Pepe was told of Nieves' exploits, she was excited.
"I'd love to see her play someday," Pepe said. "I'd love to meet her."
Chances are that will happen one day, a passing of the torch, from one Little League queen to another.
The EXTRA INNINGS feature focuses on the best stories that come from local baseball and softball leagues throughout the area. If you have any noteworthy information to contribute to the EXTRA INNINGS, feel free to contact Jim Hague by voice mail at 201-798-7800, ext. 751, by general mail at 1400 Washington Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030, or via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. Please include a telephone contact name and number, in order to secure further information for a possible story. - Jim Hague