Wednesday, February 17, 2010

score one for the girls: sylvia pressler (1934 - 2010)


It was a bright afternoon in May of 1992, and I was two strikes down. Sixty feet away, the opposing pitcher, a scruffy kid of 14 or 15, stared intently into his catcher's mitt and tried to remember that I was just another batter before hurling a fastball in my direction. As soon as I caught the ball in my sights, I knew it was going places.

Before long I was on second base, having knocked in the go-ahead run for my team. It would be one of two run-scoring hits I'd have that day, my best as a member of the local Babe Ruth Little League that I was the first girl to ever play in. My mother would later recall how she'd overheard several parents complaining that I was trying to show up their sons, that I was embarrassing them, that I didn't belong there. They wondered, a little too loudly for my mom's taste, what I was trying to prove.

Thing is, I wasn't trying to prove anything; I just wanted to play baseball. And I might never have had the opportunity to help my team that day had it not been for a woman named Sylvia Pressler, who died on Monday at the age of 75.

I was but a glimmer in my parents' eyes back in 1973, but that year a 12-year-old girl named Maria Pepe pitched three games for her Little League team in Hoboken, New Jersey. Unfortunately, while women had participated in our national pastime since the very birth of the game in the mid-1800s, and had even boasted their own professional baseball league during the 1940s and 50s, girls growing up in the 60s and 70s were generally not welcome in the game of baseball. So when the national Little League Baseball organization heard about Pepe, they threatened to revoke the charter of her local league. In response, the National Organization for Women stepped in and filed a lawsuit on Pepe's behalf.

The case was heard by New York City native Sylvia Pressler, who in 1973 was a lawyer for New Jersey's Division on Civil Rights, the state body set up to hear such cases at the time. A legal trailblazer, Pressler had earned a law degree from Rutgers School of Law thirteen years earlier at a time when female lawyers were virtually unheard of.

In her decision on the Little League case, Pressler ruled in favor of Pepe and the National Organization for Women, arguing that Little League's no-girls policy violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws. "The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie," she stated in her opinion. "There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls."

After losing an appeal, Little League Baseball amended its rules the following year and in fact decided to create an entire program for girls. Sadly, though, the girls' program was not for baseball but for softball—which, as anyone who's ever played the two knows all too well, is a very different game. Today, although it's still illegal to disallow girls from playing on Little League baseball teams, the reality is that most girls don't even consider baseball as an option anymore. This has been a bitter twist of fate for someone who thought for sure progress would have spun in the other direction—more girls playing baseball—in the 18 years since her last season of Little League!

Pressler made national headlines following the Little League decision but would go on to hear much more challenging cases after she became a judge. Four years after her landmark ruling, she became only the second woman appointed to judge on the Appellate Division for the state of New Jersey. And in 1997, she was the first woman to be named as the division's presiding judge, a position she held until her retirement in 2004.

In case you were wondering, we won the game that spring afternoon in '92. And in his victory speech to the team, our coach presented me with the game ball for my achievements at the plate and in the field. It was one of my proudest baseball moments, and I still cherish that worn-out ball—as well as the shiny blue trophy I earned after our team went on to win the league championship that season. Baseball has always been in my blood, but thanks to Sylvia Pressler, I've known what it's like to play the most American of sports. I thank her for that. ∞

3 comments:

  1. Maia - this is such a beautiful tribute, not just to the remarkable Judge Pressler, but to your own love for the game of baseball and the tenacity that saw you through some tough times when your desire to play, not to mention your obvious talent, was denigrated so egregiously by those foolish parents of your teammates. And leave us not forget your mom, either. Strong, fabulous women, all of you.

    Your Little League triumph may have happened a long time ago, but the example you set back then thanks to Judge Pressler echoes through the ages and inspires us today. Thank you for remembering her and sharing the poignant tale of how her fateful decision made such a glorious difference in your life. Women in baseball rule!

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  2. Terrific post!! And how fitting that Maria Pepe's triumph took place in the "birthplace of baseball":
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoboken,_New_Jersey#Birthplace_of_baseball

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  3. I can only echo Perry's words. A poignant tribute.

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