Forty years ago, the New Jersey State Supreme Court upheld a ruling that allowed girls to play Little League Baseball. A discrimination lawsuit had been brought by the National Organization for Women on behalf of Maria Pepe, a 12-year-old from Hoboken, N.J., who had been banished by her league when opposing teams protested.
And 30 years have passed since the reserve outfielder Victoria Roche, an expat Little Leaguer on a team from Belgium, became the first girl to dig her cleats into the dirt at Williamsport.
Seventeen girls have followed Roche to the Little League World Series, with the latest two set to take part in this year’s competition. One of them is Mo’Ne Davis of Philadelphia, a showstopping pitcher whose flowing braids obscure her jersey name and number and whose three-hit shutout Sunday in her team’s regional final created a loud buzz. The other is Emma March of Vancouver, a first baseman-pitcher who often exhibits bright nail polish in games and whose twin brother, Evan, is her teammate.
The presence of Davis and March marks the third time in the last decade that two girls will be playing at Williamsport in the same year. What began as a phenomenon — it took five years after Roche’s debut for another girl to make it to Williamsport — has become more of a regular occurrence.
All of this is no mystery to Dr. David Popoli, a primary care sports medicine physician with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The pool of female athletes has deepened, he said, and with expert instruction honing the biomechanics of all youngsters, “you can be a standout player not just because of your physical prowess.”
As well, he said, boys generally do not start to separate themselves muscularly from girls until around age 15, when higher testosterone levels generate more bulk.
As for Little League’s elite sorority, it is an eclectic group, including a lot of other girls besides Roche who played baseball overseas and some who were accidental stars, landing in the World Series without being laser-focused on the sport.
Krissy Wendell, for instance, was a hockey prodigy in Minnesota who picked up a bat and catcher’s mitt largely to tag along with her brother. And because her parents locked up the skates during summers.
Competing with and against boys was hardly intimidating, Wendell having done so on the ice when she was 5 years old. “It was fairly normal to me,” she said Tuesday in an interview.
At Williamsport, where in 1994 Wendell became the fifth female participant and the second based in the United States, normalcy ended as she became a magnet for the news media. “Enough is enough,” she remembers telling her father, a team coach. The interviews were stealing her away from the video arcade and swimming pool that teammates were enjoying.
Memories of her stay at Williamsport are otherwise positive, and she flew home before the rest of the team only because hockey beckoned. A stellar career on skates culminated with her captaincy of the United States team at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now, as Krissy Wendell-Pohl, she coaches high school girls hockey with her husband, Jim, a former pro.
Bryn Stonehouse played softball exclusively as a child in Texas until her family moved to Saudi Arabia, which did not offer the sport. To stay active, she took up baseball with boys and, after being cut the first season there, was able to join the all-blond Saudi team — a superstitious ritual accomplished with hair dye — that headed to the Series in 2009, 15 years after Wendell.
Stonehouse said Tuesday she looks back at that experience as “one in a million,” made extra-special by the presence of a second girl, Katie Reyes from Vancouver. She said that she encountered no harassment or teasing over the fact she was a girl but that all the attention unduly affected her play, though her final at-bat produced a bunt single for a run batted in.
“I am really proud and extremely blessed to be a part of this select group,” said Stonehouse, who has circled back to Texas to begin studying social work in college but will limit her softball playing to intramurals.
Dotting this female honor roll is another player from the Saudi league, along with players — some of them American-born — from Japan, Germany, Russia, Guam and the Czech Republic. Until Davis this week, the shortest commute to Williamsport came via western Kentucky. Meghan Sims made that trip in 2004 and on Tuesday looked back, too.
She said she avoided softball as a child, sensing it lacked the knee-skinned aggression that baseball provided. She would swing a bat at anything thrown by her father — baseballs, marshmallows, sunflower seeds — and eventually hit her way onto a team that went to the World Series.
Sims also pitched, serving up a mammoth home run at Williamsport that, to this day, her former coach teases her about, joking that the ball is still rolling.
“It was such an awesome experience,” Sims said. Pleasant reminders still greet her daily when she wakes up — a mounted bat from the event, Little League posters on bedroom walls.
She said that switching to softball a year after the Series was painful for her, that she had fantasized about someday playing in the major leagues. “I hated the thought of playing it,” she said about taking up softball.
But she did, playing at Murray State until quitting to concentrate on her nursing studies. To this day, Sims said, she relishes the classroom routine of students being asked to cite an interesting tidbit about themselves. “I played baseball — with the boys — on ESPN,” Sims happily announces.
Any hostility she sensed at Williamsport emanated, if mildly, from her own dugout. A first baseman, she said she detected hints of jealousy from some backups bothered that a girl was in the lineup and not them.
Part of her sympathizes. “It’s a boys’ sport, clearly,” she said.
But not entirely, as shown this weekend by waist-long hair on one player and colorfully painted nails on another.