Girls in Little League: A History of the Fight to Play Baseball
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
Should girls play on boys sports teams?
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
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.
Female First in Little League
First girl to play on a team
First to make a team since the Tubby Rule enacted
First to throw a no hitter
First to play in the Little League World Series
First to throw a no hitter in the Little League World Series
- 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!
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.
- History of Little League
Its roots go back to the 19th century.
- Little League Chronology
A timeline for this organization from 1938-2011.
- Small Wonders - Meet the girls who toppled Little League
There was more than one girl who help open up local baseball fields for females. Read their stories.
- Tubby Johnston
Before the courts weighed in, one girl played baseball and played it well.
- Youth Sports Hero of the Month: Maria Pepe (Hoboken, New Jersey) | MomsTeam
It wasn't easy being the first female to do anything. Pepe's story shows what courage and determination these girls had.
© 2014 Melody Lassalle