The girls who toppled Little League

To this day, Janine Cinseruli can't pass by a Little League field without stopping her car, hopping out and checking to see if there are any girls playing.

If there are, "I'll go over and give them a high-five, tell them they have to represent, 'Work hard, do the best you can,'" she says, and then breaks into a laugh. "They look at me like, 'Who the heck are you?'"

Someone really ought to tell them some day. About the hate mail. The insults. And then, about those 16 glorious strikeouts.

Courtesy Janine Cinseruli

Even when people told Janine Cinseruli she couldn't play, she always knew she was really good.

Forty summers ago, Cinseruli, a 10-year-old from Peabody, Massachusetts, was one of approximately 20 girls across the United States who filed lawsuits against Little League baseball for the right to play. Or as one judge put it, to do something "as American as the hot dog and apple pie."

"I didn't think I was doing any trailblazing at 10 years old," says Cinseruli, now 51 and a chef and restaurant owner in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. "But the thing that threw me the most was when I went to sign up and a guy said, 'You can't play,' and I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'Because you're a girl.'

"I was not that smart or worldly, but I knew right then it was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. ... I remember I said, 'But I can play, I'm really good.'"

Her family knew that to be true. Even her three brothers admitted she was the best of the bunch. So after Cinseruli was turned away on sign-up day, her mother picked up the phone and called the local newspaper. Soon after, an attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union took her case pro bono and filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging, in part, that Little League's "no girls" rule violated Janine's civil rights.

Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Samuel Adams issued a temporary restraining order that postponed the Little League season for the entire town.

And that went over about as well in Peabody as a Yankees pennant flying on Main Street.

"The big thing was fathers wanted their sons to play," Janine says. "So we got hate mail and people drove by the house and yelled things at my mother, insulting things like 'What kind of mother are you? Put a dress on her. Teach her to type.'"

The pressure was inflicted upon the entire Cinseruli family, Janine's sister Rhonda says.

"I remember my mother getting phone calls and being very emotional," she says. "She would be crying and upset because she thought the kids were picking on Janine. And my brother Vinny would come home upset about the other boys saying, 'Your sister is messing things up.' But it never stopped my mother because she and my dad knew what Janine was capable of and they knew what was right."

In a 1974 interview with Boston's WCBV-TV, their mother, who died in 2003, sounded aggravated but resolute about the abuse the family was taking.

"Most of the letters I couldn't even repeat because they were obscene, that's just what they were," Marion Cinseruli says. "But I feel they come from small-minded people and I just burn them, throw them away."

Hats off to Maria Pepe

Two years earlier and 240 miles away in Hoboken, New Jersey, an 11-year-old named Maria Pepe was issued a uniform and hat and actually played in three Little League games in 1972.

"Nobody was talking about women's liberation," says Jimmy Farina, coach of Pepe's team, the Young Democrats. "The bottom line was Maria was a good ballplayer, and to me, if someone could play baseball that was it."

But when word of Maria's participation made its way to the Little League office in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, officials threatened to revoke Hoboken's charter. Farina, feeling he had no other choice, asked for Maria's uniform back.

Courtesy Maria Pepe

Maria Pepe's Little League career lasted a mere three games.

"He said, 'You can keep your cap. And you can keep score,'" Pepe recalls.

She tried. "Then I just couldn't do it anymore," she says. "I felt diminished and it wasn't fun anymore. I was still being pointed out, 'That's that girl, that's that girl.'"

Pepe still has the photo taken of her on opening day in '72, the summer she played the only three Little League games she would ever play.

"I looked so happy," she says. "But I remember praying to God that summer, saying, 'I think you made a mistake. Maybe I should have been a boy.' At 11, I didn't understand legal matters. ... All I knew was that I was being taken away from my friends and something I enjoyed doing and I wondered if I was doomed from doing all the other things I wanted to do in life."

Pepe's case, the first against Little League to go to court, was taken up by the National Organization for Women, and the wrath came down hard on a blue-collar family who wanted only to do right by their children. Pepe recalls her mother being confronted by a group of women in a public restroom in the family's apartment building.

"My mother was Italian, she never played sports, she was a homemaker," Pepe says. "But she told those ladies off in that washroom, 'You leave my daughter alone.' She used to watch me play from the window and to her, this is just what I did.

"I always knew not to show my hurt because I didn't want to upset what was happening even more."

But the cruelty of one man has stayed with her for 42 years.

"I remember getting on the elevator in the building one day with a gentleman who was very involved in Hoboken sports, and when the door closed, he let loose on me," Pepe recalls. "He yelled, 'Don't you realize how much trouble you're causing?' I remember walking into my apartment thinking, 'Don't let your parents know what just happened. They may pull the plug.'"

A short time later, the same man approached Maria and a group of boys on the playground. "I was hanging out with the fellas, five or six of us, and he said, 'Hey, do you want to go to the Yankee game? I have tickets for tonight. Go home and ask your parents.' I loved the Yankees and had never been to a game, but he purposely left me out."

Understanding the legal matters

As the various cases lurched through the court systems across the country, some going as far as state supreme and federal courts, often with Little League appealing unfavorable verdicts, many judges seemed to shake their heads over Little League's antiquated rules.

In Pepe's case, Sylvia Pressler, a hearing officer with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, heard a variety of arguments from Little League, including one claiming Congress had empowered it to develop "qualities of citizenship, sportsmanship and manhood" in boys.

The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.
Sylvia Pressler

Pressler also was told that girls faced heightened risk of injury because of inferior muscle strength and that they might develop breast cancer from getting hit in the chest with a baseball.

In the end, Pressler, who would rise to be the presiding administrative judge of New Jersey's Appellate Division and worked to extend the rights of gay couples in adoption before her death in 2010, called Pepe "a very, very courageous girl."

In her ruling, she wrote, "The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls."

Not surprisingly, Little League officials criticized the ruling, saying that most Americans accepted baseball as a "prerogative" of males. And they said Pressler's decision was "conceived in vindictive and prejudicial fashion of the worst kind."

Still, with mounting costs and cases popping up across America, Little League was wearing down.

"Little League was fighting all these cases all over the country in state and local courts and winning most of the time because they were able to argue that Little League was not a public accommodation," says Lance Van Auken, current Little League vice president and executive director of its museum. "But in New Jersey, that defense failed and it left Little League with the choice of either accepting girls in New Jersey, keep fighting to the federal level -- and all those lawsuits almost bankrupted Little League -- or just accept girls and be done with it."

Little League decided to be done with it.

Cinseruli, who in that summer of 1974 also won her case in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, dedicated her first game to her attorney and pledged to hit a home run.

Instead, the kid from Peabody struck out 16 batters and made the All-Star team that season and the next.

But for Pepe, who turned 14 in June of '74, time had run out on her Little League career. "The fact that I couldn't play was so disturbing to me, it actually took several years to where I could go back to the Little League field," Pepe says. "It was a sacred place to me but I had so many memories, I couldn't bear to go back to that park."

Back at the park

In April of this year, the Peabody Little League invited Cinseruli and two other women -- Terry Durkin and Christine Jones Marino -- who also played Little League that summer of '74, to march in their opening day parade and take part in the opening ceremonies.

One problem.

"It rained," says Peter Lendall, the president of the league, who had played against Cinseruli in her 16-strikeout game. "We had 800 hot dogs donated and I'm thinking, 'Everyone is going to bolt.' But then the three women were introduced and came onto the field and the ovation was unbelievable.

Courtesy Janine Cinseruli

Janine Cinseruli says it took her years to realize the enormity of her feat.

"A lot of the people there were mothers of kids playing Little League today, 35- to 40-year-olds, some younger, who recognized they got their opportunities to play sports because of girls like Janine, and the ovation was almost thunderous. The women's expressions were like they couldn't believe it. It was really touching."

It took Cinseruli until she was in her 30s to fully embrace what she went through.

"It wasn't the greatest thing in the world at the time," she says. "I was almost embarrassed by it for a lot of years. ... I shied away [from] it until I hit my 30s and then I starting looking at it like, 'Hey, you know what? It's a good thing that happened. It changed lives and it changed the way people look at girls playing sports."

As for Pepe, she says she does not feel pride but rather "relief" that girls don't have to go through what she did to play the game they love, and she was grateful when 50 girls in Hoboken tried out for the city's Little League the year the rules were changed. Counting Mo'ne Davis and Emma March, who are scheduled to play in the 2014 Little League World Series starting later this week, 18 girls have made it all the way to the World Series. 

In 2004, when Little League celebrated its 65th anniversary and the 30th year since girls were allowed to play, Williamsport officials called Pepe for the first time, asking for her cap and glove to display in their museum. Her cap has since been transferred to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

"I had my cap wrapped in a box in a closet. I was so heartbroken when I had to give up the uniform. ... I never wore the cap, but I treasured it. It meant so much," Pepe says, her voice breaking.

"I remember walking to the post office with my cap and glove to send to Williamsport. I knew it was the right thing to do, but it's almost like I still miss it in my home. It still hurts. It will always hurt."

She does have a few good memories.

One came in May of '72 when -- not long after the man yelled at her in her apartment building and gave Yankees tickets to her friends -- the Yankees called the Pepes and invited them to a game.

"There was a picture in the paper and the caption read '[Yankees manager] Ralph Houk gives big welcome to Maria Pepe,' and my father was holding a baseball out to sign," Pepe says. "I was so happy that day."

And she actually did return to a Little League pitcher's mound in 2004, when she was invited to throw out the first pitch during the opening day ceremonies in Williamsport.

There she met former Little League executive vice president Dr. Creighton J. Hale, who was one of the girls' most strident and outspoken opponents when he led Little League's effort to exclude girls 30 years earlier.

"He sat on a bench next to me," Pepe says, "and he leaned over the said, 'I just want you to know. My granddaughter plays.'"

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