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Alumni Profiles
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Alumni Profile: Maria Pepe

Imagine yourself leaving work at the end of the day from a well-respected hospital where you preside over the accounting operations. On your drive home, you might pass softball and baseball games, where young girls and boys are playing side-by-side. Imagine the feeling that you would experience knowing that your groundbreaking efforts helped make it possible and acceptable for girls to play on the same fields with the boys. 

This is what life is like every day for Maria Pepe, MBA’92 (T-H), who, as a 12-year-old, became the central figure in a civil rights battle and the inspiration for every girl who wanted to share the athletic spotlight with the boys. 

As a young girl in Hoboken, N.J., in the early 1970s, Pepe often joined the boys’ stick-ball or wiffle-ball games. But when her fellow players decided to sign up for Little League, she thought she might have to sit on the sidelines. Fate stepped in, though, when the coach of a team called the Young Democrats recognized her athletic ability and desire for the game and encouraged her to throw her hat in the ring. Once she got permission and passed the tryouts, the young pitcher became the first girl to don a Little League uniform. 

She pitched three games, but her appearance caused quite a commotion. A protest ensued and the opposing teams, with heightened pressure from parents, forced officials to deal with the “gender” matter. The issue went to Williamsport (headquarters of the national Little League), which declared an ultimatum: either throw Pepe off the team or lose the Young Democrats franchise. 

The coach then went to Pepe’s house and informed her and her parents that she had to relinquish her spot on the team. “I was stripped of my uniform because I was a girl, not because of an inability to play,” recalls Pepe, “As a 12-year-old, I couldn’t stand up for myself, and that really hurt.” 

The media focused a bright spotlight on the debate and the controversy sparked an interest in Pepe by various organizations. The New York Yankees made a nice gesture when they named her a “Yankee for a Day.” But it was the National Organization for Women (NOW) that really went to bat for Pepe, filing a civil rights complaint on her behalf, claiming sexual discrimination. Some of the legal arguments undoubtedly eluded the determined young girl. “I couldn’t understand what was happening to me,” she says. “What upset me the most was how hard Williamsport fought to keep girls out. ” 

The case went to the New Jersey Superior Court and, with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights in Pepe’s corner, the Superior Court ruled in 1974 that Williamsport allow both girls and boys, ages eight through 12, to play in Little League. Unfortunately, by that time, Pepe was too old to continue her Little League dream. 

She had, however, paved the way for millions of girls nationwide, a fact that continues to give her great pride. “Although it was emotional for me as a kid, I’ve grown a lot from that experience,” says Pepe, “I was a key figure in the 1970s’ evolution of girls’ sports, and I’ve had an influence on many girls’ lives.” After her civil rights struggle, Pepe continued to compete athletically, playing on community softball and basketball teams and earning a spot on the varsity softball team at Saint Peter’s College, Jersey City, N.J. 

“I believe that being involved in organized sports all of my life has helped me in the professional world,” she notes. “The interaction within a sports team is similar to the team spirit on the job.” 

Pepe is a vital team member of Hackensack University Medical Center, where she works as a controller. Managing a department of 30 employees, she helps to integrate the financial needs with the administrative priorities of the hospital. She works intensely with committees, task forces and various departments, and is in charge of closing out financial statements and managing accounts payable, payroll and capital assets. 

Working at the Medical Center, she says, makes her “feel like I help people, even if it’s on the financial end and not the clinical end of the health care business. I’ve really found a niche that satisfies me, and I’m still learning and growing along with the hospital.” 

In addition to her dedication at the Medical Center, she handles taxes on a professional level; continues to take courses to further her training as a certified public accountant; enjoys reading, going to the gym and playing tennis; and loves to travel. 

More than a quarter century after her Little League debut, Pepe continues to receive acclaim. She recently was interviewed for a two-hour HBO special on “Barrier Breakers in Women’s Sports,” which also features tennis great Billie Jean King. In 1996, Pepe’s hometown of Hoboken made her a guest of honor on Baseball Day. Thanks to her courage, female Little Leaguers aren’t restricted to a league of their own.                                     — S.F.L. 
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