NEWARK - Sylvia Pressler, a trailblazing judge whose 1973 ruling opened Little League baseball to girls, has died. She was 75.
Pressler died Monday morning at the family's home in Sparta, according to her husband, David Pressler. She had been battling lymphoma and was scheduled to begin chemotherapy treatments yesterday, he said.
While serving as a hearing examiner with New Jersey's Division on Civil Rights, Pressler ruled that a 12-year-old northern New Jersey girl should have been allowed to play on a Little League team.
"The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie," Pressler wrote in a sharply worded opinion. "There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls."
The ruling was decried by Little League as "conceived in vindictive and prejudicial fashion of the worst kind," but it was upheld on appeal, and New Jersey became the first state to bar sex discrimination in Little League. By the following year, Little League amended its charter to allow girls and also created a softball division.
Pressler's own career took shape at a time when the legal profession was overwhelmingly male. She earned her law degree from Rutgers in 1960 and was one of the first women in the state to clerk for an Appellate Division judge.
She was appointed to her first judgeship in 1973 and four years later became one of the first women to be assigned to the Appellate Division. In 1997, she became the first woman to be named the division's presiding judge, where she was responsible for keeping the judicial calendar and managing staff besides hearing cases.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Pressler authored an annually updated book on the rules governing New Jersey courts that required her to review "every case, every day," her husband said. "She brought great talent and great energy together."
The Little League case reached Pressler in 1973. Maria Pepe, 12, of Hoboken had played three games for her Little League team the year before but stopped when Little League's national office threatened to revoke the league's charter. The National Organization for Women filed a lawsuit on her behalf.
Pressler said his wife didn't consider the Little League case one of her more difficult decisions, despite its ramifications and the publicity surrounding it.
"It was an important case because of its timing," he said. "But it was perfectly obvious to her that they were completely cockeyed in barring girls if they were physically able."