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Girls in Little League: A History of the Fight to Play Baseball

Updated on March 21, 2015
Baseball mitt and ball
Baseball mitt and ball | Source

Little League was founded in 1939 by Carl Stotz. Every spring kids from all over the world get ready for opening day. Every June the best of these teams play in district tournaments. Some of these teams make their way to Williamsport, PA where the Little League World Series is held.

This year, all eyes were on the team from Pennsylvania. A young girl named, Mo'ne Davis, captured our attention. She was the first girl to throw a shut out in a championship game.

She might not have realized it. But, the relationship between Little League and girls has not always been a friendly one. There were many battles between the two before she stepped out on the mound to cheers.

When Little League began it was a boys only club. No girls allowed! Though many tried, the organization blocked them. They were openly hostile towards teams and districts that allowed girls to play. Only when the courts stepped in did things change.

Girls and Boys Playing Together

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The Tubby Rule

In 1950, Kathryn “Tubby” Johnston pretended to be a boy in order to tryout for her local league. She was selected, then revealed that she wasn't a boy. The coach thought she was a pretty good player and let her stay on the team. She was somewhat of a novelty bringing in fans who wanted to see the girl who played baseball.

Little League was furious. They fought back by threatening to take away the district's charter which would have prevented them from competing in tournaments and All Stars. The ripple effect would have been the loss of sponsorships and permission to play on local fields. Kathy Johnson had to go.

Before the beginning of the next season, the Tubby Rule was passed. It prohibited all girls from being on Little League teams.

Bringing the Battle to the Big Screen

The Bad News Bears (1976)
The Bad News Bears (1976)

This comedy starring Tatum O'Neal and Walter Matthau depicted perfectly what girls who played baseball went through.

 
My family ready for opening day 1968-1969.  Only my brothers got to play that day.
My family ready for opening day 1968-1969. Only my brothers got to play that day. | Source

We Were a Little League Family

I know a little bit about this battle. I grew up in a Little League family during the 1960s and 1970s. My oldest brother played from the time I was 3 until I was 13. My parents were heavily involved as volunteers. From 1966 to 1976, from April through the tournaments in July, we spent one evening a week and every Saturday at the ball field.

There was a time when I wanted to play. I loved baseball. I was a pretty good hitter, too. I was terrible with the glove though. I knew I was barred from playing so I had to be content with my elementary school's girls "sports team" which was only open to 5th and 6th graders.

The debate over girls playing Little League raged when I was in 3rd grade. My Dad was one of them. He really got riled up over the idea. He was convinced of two things: girls didn't have the skills to play and they weren't tough enough to compete with boys. His opinion was share by most of the volunteers in our league. They were adamantly against inclusion.

He and I argued over this even after girls were allowed to play. I can still remember his main point "What if a boy slides into second base cleats first and a girl is covering? He's going to hurt her!" My response was always something like "Well, then she'll just have to toughen up, won't she?" I firmly believed that given the chance, the training, and time, girls would catch up.

A Little League Softball Game
A Little League Softball Game | Source

Female First in Little League

 
 
 
Kathryn Johnston
1950
First girl to play on a team
Maria Pepe
1972
First to make a team since the Tubby Rule enacted
Bunny Taylor
1974
First to throw a no hitter
Victoria Roche
1984
First to play in the Little League World Series
Mo'ne Davis
2014
First to throw a no hitter in the Little League World Series

Important Dates

  • Kathryn Johnston becomes the first girl to play Little League in 1950
  • The Tubby Rule is passed in 1951 banning girls
  • Lawsuits are filed in 1972 challenging the ban
  • Court rules against the ban in 1974
  • Maria Pepe is honored with Maria Pepe Day at the LLWS on August 20, 2004

Lawsuits Filed in the Early 1970s

Other girls followed in her footsteps meeting resistance all along the way, some even got death threats and hate mail. In 1972, a girl named Maria Pepe changed everything. She played three games that season before getting the boot. But, she didn't go away quietly. Her family fought back in the courts with the help of the National Organization of Women (NOW). Other girls filed lawsuits including Jenny Fulle and Frances Pescatore who filed a joint lawsuit.

It took two years before the ruling was handed down. In 1974, the New Jersey Superior Court ruled against Little League. The ban was lifted.

Those in power were still against allowing girls and boys to play on the same teams on the same fields. They created a softball league for girls to appease them.

The sad part about this is that because the ruling took two years, Maria Pepe could not benefit. She was too old to play by the time the ban was lifted.

Maria Pepe remembers the lesson she learned the day the ruling was handed down

The Softball League

It was established in 1974 in answer to the court ruling. It was made up of two divisions: Little League and Big Leagues. Ages 4-18 could participate. I don't recall our district getting softball until I was in 7th or 8th grade. By then, I was too old to start playing.

Today, 360,000 athletes sign up to play. The leagues are found in 20 countries around the world.

It wasn't the perfect solution at the local level. Some districts were already cash strapped. They could not afford to buy the necessary equipment and uniforms for softball. Some didn't have enough players to field teams and others couldn't find volunteers.

Even though girls got their own league, some were not satisfied. They dreamed of playing baseball. Some like Bunny Taylor got their chance right away.

Over time, the grip was loosened, attitudes changed, and local districts allowed girls to play alongside the boys. Today, kids have their choice between softball or baseball no matter their gender.

Strike 'Em Out Mo'ne!

Mo'ne Davis: Remember My Name: My Story from First Pitch to Game Changer
Mo'ne Davis: Remember My Name: My Story from First Pitch to Game Changer

Mo'ne Davis proved that girls can play Little League. Follow her exciting journey from local athlete to the Little League championship to the cover of Sports Illustrated. You'll be hearing a lot more about her in the future.

 

Dreams Fulfilled


When Mo'ne Davis stepped out on the mound during the World Series playoffs, she carried with her the dreams of many girls forbidden to play over the decades. She also carried the dreams of those yet to come. It was awesome seeing her pitch a shut out and proving that girls could compete with the boys. Like I always, said, all they needed was time and the training to catch up.

Though her team eventually was eliminated by a team from Chicago, I was so proud of what she had achieved—individually and for females. She was just one of 18 girls to ever play in the playoffs. Yet, she proved that she had earned her spot. She belonged there.

She won't be the last female to set foot on the baseball diamond for Little League. In fact, I bet that many little girls were inspired by her 70 mph fast ball, her athleticism, and her toughness. You just wait! Next season, there will be even more girls just like Mo'ne Davis, Kathy Johnson, and Maria Pepe waiting for try outs.

© 2014 Melody Lassalle

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    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      LadyGuitarPicker, thank you for your comments! It is sad how many girls were prevented from pursuing sports in general. I went to school in the 1970s and the prevailing attitude was still that girls shouldn't be allowed to play Little League. Now I see my nieces who have played soccer, baseball, and even wrestling. Some of the barriers are gone, but there is still more work to be done.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      I really enjoyed reading your hub and it brought back some memories. In 1958 it was not allowed for girls to play baseball. The reason was girls (really very stupid) had to wear dresses at all time. No pants or shorts, just a dress. Glad all this has changed. Some things are much better. I loved to play, but could not.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      CherylsArt, You're welcome! A League of Their Own is a wonderful movie. It wouldn't surprise me if the women who played Pro Baseball during that period didn't inspired the girls who tried to sign up for Little League in 1950.

    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 2 years ago from West Virginia

      Thanks for the history lesson about girls and baseball. I hadn't heard about these people before, but was most impressed when watching the movie, A League of Their Own, about how women got to play baseball when the men were away at war.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      When I was growing up girls were discouraged from any kind of athletic pursuit unless it fit someone's idea of what girls should be doing. Parents were often the ones doing the discouraging. It's too bad for your niece, but hopefully, girls today don't face the same barriers.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      DealForALiving, I agree! My family had been involved with LL for many years. The local district always had a policy of accepting any boy where they were qualified or not because you can learn so much from being on a team. No reason a girl can't break that barrier based on ability since they didn't apply it to boys at all.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      I am sure that the boys' acceptance made it easier for the girl to participate. I have often found in sports (and other things) that adults could learn a few things about acceptance from kids.

    • David Stone profile image

      David Stone 2 years ago from New York City

      I've agreed with you on this for over twenty years since my niece was one of the best shortstops I've ever watched. Sadly, her father discouraged her goals. Let's not lose anymore women athletes.

    • DealForALiving profile image

      Sam Deal 2 years ago from Earth

      I think it's great when little league teams have more girls on them - the experience builds teamwork and character and can be good for everyone involved.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 2 years ago from USA

      I coached LL boys for fourteen years and remember when the first girl played on the teams. The boys were pretty good about it and the team didn't have any problems. The parents on the other hand did. Things we can learn from our kids!

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      They used to have such strange rules about females playing sports. I remember reading a newspaper article on the first college to add basketball back in the late 1890s or early 1900s. They modified the rules in so many ways because the whole thing of women running around with a basketball was enough to shock their cultural senses. I don't even think they allowed males in to watch the games because it was unseemly. Thank goodness we've progressed and gotten over that!

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 2 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Thanks for all this background information about girls and Little League. We really have come a long way. I remember when it was against the law for girls to play Basketball. Fortunately, that law was overturned.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      MelRootsNWrites,

      You are very welcome for me telling you the truth. I am for girls playing and competing with guys. If the guys are civil-minded and not overly-macho, it is fine, but there are a lot of narrow-minded guys who love to push the girls around out of insecurity.

      God help them. And you keep up the writing.

      I hope to see you again on HP.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think Mo'ne Davis has probably changed a lot of minds about girls playing Little League. Honestly, I wasn't even aware of girls playing until I saw Mo'ne pitching.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Susanna, when my youngest niece was 4 a boy at day care tried to play with her toy. She saw it from across the room and tackled him. Two of my nieces played soccer and they were both good at it. The oldest even signed up for wrestling in high school when there were no sports available to her. I don't buy that girls are more frail than boys--not one bit!

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
      Author

      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      A former pro baseball player, I forget the name, noted that Mo'ne Davis had the mechanics to go along with her pitching speed. Talent goes a long way. With the proper coaching and a desire to learn, there's no reason she can't compete with the boys.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Kenneth, thanks so much for the kind praise! This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.

      It's good to hear that others are encouraging of their daughters. I have three nieces and I've always encouraged them to try whatever they have interested in. Sports are good for kids whether they are boys or girls.

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 2 years ago from Kansas

      Where we live, girls and boys play together for the first two years, then they split them up.

      Having clocked my pitching speed when I was young, I fully realize how impressive that young girl was this year.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Mel,

      I have two granddaughters, ages 13 and 8. One grandson, age 10. The girls love sports and I say LET 'EM PLAY! Even football. I am not about discrimination of any type. This is why this hub appealed to me.

      And as for your writing,

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Honestly, I can easily describe it as amazing.

      I loved every word. Graphics were superb. This hub was helpful, informative and I found it very interesting.

      Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

      You have such a gift for writing. Keep writing no matter what.

      Sincerely,

      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 2 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      A thrilling account of the fight to play sport. I well remember old men saying that girls were too frail to play contact sports, obviously not one of them had seen the girls in my school play netball or watched me play football with my brothers. This idea of 'weakness' in girls is one more dragon we have to slay

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      I know I preferred baseball over softball. I was a small kid and a baseball was easier to handle :D. I also think the "girls will get hurt" argument is silly. I see now reason to believe that girls can't be as tough. Boys get injured just as often.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 2 years ago from So Cal

      We are not Little League but Pony. Our league has softball and baseball although girls who want to play baseball are allowed. I haven't checked but I'm sure Pony had similar restrictions at one time. Some girls do not like softball, I know I don't. As for girls being hurt, my son broke his leg in May warming up for a game. He is finally back in baseball. Excellence in the sport is from talent not gender.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
      Author

      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Thank you June! It was interesting to do the research and read up on the struggles. In the 60s and 70s, people cared quite a lot about preserving institutions as they were. Change can be a difficult thing even when its for the best.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Thank you SheGetsCreative! It is a history that I remember bits and pieces having grown up through it and having a family so close to Little League. My Dad was still volunteering in his 80s!

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image
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      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Joyce, It must not have been easy being the only girl. I can remember how my Dad fought including girls and I know the opinion was widespread in our league.

    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 2 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      This is an excellent, and well-researched article about a topic that was relatively new to me. Thanks for the info.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      An excellent hub - and I learned a few new things about the ongoing battles of girls playing in Little League.

    • Joyce Mann profile image

      Joyce T. Mann 2 years ago from Bucks County, Pennsylvania USA

      My daughter was the only girl on her Little League team in the late 1980s. Baseball helped teach her some important life lessons.

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