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Thank you, Sylvia Pressler

February 23, 2010 – 6:16 AM

By Laura Pappano

News of Judge Sylvia Pressler’s death last week – at 75 at a family home in Sparta, NJ – drew a few paragraphs in the newspaper, but hardly attracted huge attention.

And yet, as spring training gets underway and kids prepare for Little League tryouts (now a winter affair), we should remember Pressler’s contribution — and not just her 1973 finding allowing Maria Pepe of the Hoboken Democrats to play Little League — but the way she framed the issue.

Pressler made clear the connection between sports – in this case, Little League Baseball – and political equality. “The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie,” she wrote in her findings. “There’s no reason that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”

When the National Organization for Women filed a grievance on behalf of Pepe with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the debate focused chiefly on concerns that girls would get hurt if they played baseball with boys – a notion that if you look at the size of many 9 and 10-year-old girls compared with boys, appears downright silly (note the size of the girl vs. the boys in the Times story photo below, published after Pressler’s findings and amid widespread debate).

In researching Playing with the Boys, N.O.W granted me access to their papers, including details of the 1973 proceedings and Pressler’s findings. During six days of testimony in the case, Little League officials tried every argument they could muster to bar girls from the game. One of the most amusing points came from Dr. Creighton J. Hale, physiologist and Little League VP, who argued that “the possibility of cosmetic injury is more ‘socially damaging’ for a girl than it is for a boy.” Another LL representative, Dr. Thomas Johnson, a San Diego psychiatrist, argued that forced integration of the sexes was bad for children’s mental development. “Boys like to be with boys and girls like to be with girls,” he said.

Give Pressler credit at a time when it was not easy to stand up to male tradition for insisting that integration of the sexes (and, yes, even in the male sport of baseball) mattered. “I have no doubt that there are many reputable psychologists who would agree with the ‘birds of a feather’ theory,” Pressler wrote. “But the extension of that is that whites like to be with whites, blacks like to be with blacks and Jews likes to be with Jews; and that whole theory is a contradiction to the laws of this state and this country.”

Further, she said, “the sooner little boys begin to realize that little girls are equal and that there will be many opportunities for a boy to be bested by a girl, the closer they will be to better mental health.”

Her ruling created an uproar. But it stood.

Imagine if someone who lacked her clarity of vision had decided the case? When I learned of her passing, I had one thought: Thank you, Sylvia Pressler.

The New York Times, April 2, 1974

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