Beyond Jackie Robinson: Inspiring Sports Stories

by Mary Stennes Wilbourn and Alison Behnke

In April of this year, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. It has been 67 years since Robinson walked on the field as the first black baseball player in the league, and because of his courage, the courage of his team’s coaches and owners, and Robinson’s ability to play the game well despite the rampant racism he faced, professional sports changed forever.

In the Count on Me: Sports series books, author Brad Herzog shares this and many other true stories of bravery and inspiration from a wealth of sports history. Some are about people just as famous as Jackie Robinson, but others are about unsung heroes. CountOnMeSports_CourageWhether the theme is courage, generosity, teamwork, perseverance, or sportsmanship, these stories often resonate with kids, and can stir all of us.

One such tale is from the chapter called “League Leaders” in the upcoming title Incredible Stories of Courage in Sports to be published in August. There are five courageous acts in this tale, each performed by ordinary people who loved sports and kids. Here is an excerpt:

Sometimes major change is the result of many smaller courageous acts.

In the spring of 1972, there was an excellent baseball player in Hoboken, New Jersey. Nearly every day, 11-year-old Maria Pepe played the game with her cousins and their friends. When it was time to sign up for Little League tryouts, however, she waited outside while the boys signed up. She wasn’t sure if she was even allowed to go in. But the boys wanted her to have a chance. They told the coach, Jimmy Farina, that they needed one more tryout form. The form was for Pepe. So what if she was a girl? She was good! That was Courageous Act #1.

Farina walked outside. He asked the shy girl if she wanted to try out. That was Courageous Act #2.

Maria Pepe courtesy of littleleague_org

Pepe made the team . . . But some people weren’t happy about the girl in the number 9 jersey. Coaches and parents of kids on other teams began to protest. Soon Farina got a call from Little League headquarters. Official Little League Baseball rules said that only boys ages 8 to 12 could play. The organization demanded that Farina take Pepe off the team. Farina refused. (Courageous Act #3.) League officials then told him that if he didn’t follow the rule, nobody in Hoboken would be allowed to play. So only three games into her Little League career, Pepe decided it wasn’t worth the risk to her friends. Brokenhearted, she turned in her uniform.

“MARIA PEPE KICKED OFF TEAM,” read a newspaper headline. The news upset people at the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW filed a lawsuit on Pepe’s behalf. (That was Courageous Act #4.) The lawsuit said that Little League was discriminating against Pepe because of her gender.

On November 7, 1973, the judge returned with her decision in Pepe’s case. The judge wrote, “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.” (Courageous Act #5.)

Hooray for all the courageous souls who contributed to improving access to sports for kids, especially girls! Little did any of them know that they were creating a cultural shift as they stood up for Pepe and her right to play ball. Their actions went far beyond supporting one young girl. But Pepe herself did not get to play in her Little League, as seen in the end of the story:

By the time the case ended, Pepe was too old for Little League. She later played college softball. But she admitted, “If I had one wish, it would be to be able to go back and play those couple of years.” Still, while she never got the chance to play organized baseball, she helped change it forever. The national Little League office soon faced similar lawsuits. Finally, the organization decided to change its rules to welcome girls. Since then, more than 10 million girls have played Little League Softball. Thousands more have played Little League Baseball. Without Maria Pepe, that might not have been possible.

CountOnMeSportsLogo_RGBWhen Jackie Robinson stepped on the ball field in 1947, he broke the color barrier in baseball, and over time other barriers fell as well. In 1972, Maria Pepe’s love of the same game—and the courageous acts of the people supporting her—helped open more doors for girls and women. Sports can mirror society, make history, and help kids learn about leadership and character. And, as the Count on Me: Sports series shows, you do not have to be a major league star to inspire others.

How have you been inspired by sports stories? Have you used any in your teaching?

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The Count on Me: Sports series includes these books by Brad Herzog:
A Leader’s Guide to Count on Me: Sports
Inspiring Stories of Sportsmanship
Powerful Stories of Perseveranve in Sports
Remarkable Stories of Teamwork in Sports
Awesome Stories of Generosity in Sports
Incredible Stories of Courage in Sports

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