40 Years Later, Girl Pioneers Look Back
Kim Green had walked to Forest Oak Elementary School from her Newark, Del., home hundreds of times. But on this day in May 1974, she was walking toward her destiny.
She had waited for this chance her whole life — nine long years — most of them spent with baseball. Sometimes she watched the team her father worked for, the Philadelphia Phillies; other times she was a bat girl for her brother’s Little League team; she also played stick ball on the playground.
On this day, she was going to enter the family trade officially, earn the uniform and the cap and the patch that promoted a baseball junkie to a baseball player. Green, the daughter of former major leaguer Dallas Green, was going to sign up for Little League.
But when she reached the sign-up table at the Midway Little League, she wasn’t handed a pen.
“I’m sorry,” she remembers a middle-aged man telling her. “Little girls can’t play baseball.”
When the Little League World Series began Thursday in Williamsport, Pa., two girls were playing: Mo’Ne Davis, a 13-year-old fireballer from Philadelphia, and Emma March, a relief pitcher-first baseman from Vancouver.
They will be the 17th and 18th girls to play in the annual tournament, in large part because when Green and others like her were turned away four decades ago, they pushed back.
“As a kid, all you hear is you can’t do something,” said Green, now 49 and a firefighter in Oakland. “You think, ‘My brother can play. Why can’t I?’ But as we started fighting it, it came to my realization that, oh, this could be a reality. This could change things.”
That day in 1974, Kim headed home in tears to her mother, Sylvia, who marched her right back up to the school for the same unexpected answer.
Sylvia had heard New Jersey had let girls play and assumed the rule applied to Little Leagues across the country.
It didn’t, because New Jersey was a recent exception. At that time, the Little League rulebook explicitly prohibited girls playing. “Girls are not eligible to try out or play on Little League teams,” read Rule VI(i.), with a clarifying caveat.
“Note: the purpose of this ruling is not discrimination on the basis of sex ...”
But in New Jersey, the National Organization of Women had filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against Little League. The suit argued that the organization was discriminating unconstitutionally against girls when Maria Pepe was forced off her Hoboken Little League team after pitching three games in 1972.
At the hearings for that lawsuit, Little League’s executive vice president testified about the “physiological differences” between boys and girls.
Girls had weaker bones and muscles than boys, Creighton Hale explained, and dangerously slower reaction times. And of course, he continued, “a blow to the breast of a female, as by a batted or thrown ball, could cause cancer.”
Hearings officer Sylvia Pressler, of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, was unconvinced and ruled in favor of Pepe.
By the 1974 season, New Jersey Little League chapters were told they must allow girls to play.
That ruling bolstered similar agitation around the country. By that spring, Little League was facing nearly 20 lawsuits nationwide, including in Rhode Island, Michigan and Massachusetts. One of the teachers at Kim Green’s elementary school was active in NOW and asked whether she could sue Little League on behalf of her and four other friends who had been excluded.
Sylvia Green agreed. She called Dallas, who was the Phillies’ director of minor leagues and scouting at the time and would become their manager in 1979.
“Your daughter might be facing nine men in black robes,” she told him.
When the media asked Dallas about the lawsuit, he told them if a girl was good enough to compete with the boys, she should be allowed to do it.
“That was a big shift in what everyone was thinking about young girls playing baseball,” Kim remembers.
The story caught the eye of TV talk show host Mike Douglas. He asked Kim to come on his show with Miami Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka and actress Marlo Thomas, who recently had written the book Free to Be You and Me, which advocated blurring the traditional blue and pink lines separating social norms for boys and girls.
Cap pulled so low you could barely see her eyes, Kim stepped up to an in-studio home plate to take batting practice using tennis balls tossed by Csonka. She missed the first, then hit the rest. The studio audience roared as she peppered the TV lights with line drives and sent balls all over the stage.
“See,” Csonka said to the audience. “Don’t you think this girl should be allowed to play ball?”
The show aired June 3, 1974. On June 12, with lawsuits accumulating, Little League announced it had revised its charter to allow girls to play.
Sylvia and Kim headed back to Midway Little League to sign her up.
But the teams already had been chosen, they were told. Kim would have to wait until next year.
So Sylvia plastered notices around the school and the area: She would hold tryouts for an all-girls Little League team, players ages 8 and 9. “One hundred-something girls came out,” she remembered. “Then the first one picked up a hard ball and threw to another one who couldn’t catch a hard ball and boom, smack in the head.”
Sylvia suddenly appreciated the benefits of Little League’s insurance coverage but stuck with her vision and whittled the group down to a team of players with talent and experience, anchored by Kim and her friends.
In uniforms of powder blue — not pink — the Angels charged through Midway’s Little League competition. They won the first eight games of the 1974 season against all-boys teams.
Kim’s best friend, Alice Weldin, who has since died of cancer, was the Angels’ catcher. From her spot behind the plate, she could hear the disgruntled mumbling of batters and the angry chatter of boys in the opposing dugout, most often the phrase “she plays pretty good for a girl.”
“We changed a lot of reactions,” Kim said. “Parents thinking if a little girl can hit like this, she can play. Nobody was purposely mean about it, but I think it was an educational thing.”
The Angels finished second in the league. The next year, Kim and her friends were allowed to try out with the boys, and in that first year some estimates put the number of girls playing Little League nationwide around 30,000.
Little League says it doesn’t keep track of how many girls are playing on teams today, but estimates are that hundreds of thousands of girls have played since 1974.
This year, two girls will play in the same Little League World Series for the third time.
Davis pitched her Philadelphia Little League team to a win over Delaware in the Mid-Atlantic region final last Sunday night, allowing three hits in a six-inning shutout.
When the game’s final out hit the first baseman’s glove, the Taney Youth Baseball Association team jumped on her to celebrate. Her bones withstood the blows.
“They jumped on the girl in the celebration just like they would’ve a boy,” Little League CEO Steven Keener said. “It really doesn’t make any difference, and that’s the way it should be.”
Davis blew away Taney’s Mid-Atlantic competition with a 70-mph fastball that has turned her into the story of this year’s World Series, earning her an appearance on NBC’s Today show and stories in national media outlets across the country.
In the year Little League celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding, a girl is stealing the show.
It’s a fact that gives Kim Green at least a small measure of satisfaction.
“If you’ve got the skills to do a job, it shouldn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man,” she said. “It’s the same in baseball: If you’re talented enough to play, you can play. Every time I see a girl out there doing anything, it’s a source of pride. Because it does remind me that it wasn’t that long ago that we couldn’t play.”