Easter Monday at N.C. State
By Hank Utley & Dr. Gary Freeze
PART ONE: THE STATE-WAKE SERIES
Baseball games have been a traditional part of North Carolina's Easter Monday celebration since the 1880s and 1890s. Originally, town teams played one another. Concord, for example, would go to Salisbury for a game, and residents of both towns would crowd the field. When baseball became a part of college life, those teams assumed the same role in their home towns. North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College's first recorded Easter Monday game was in 1899, when "the Farmers" beat the Bingham School of Mebane, 5-4, The contest provided the "christening for the new A&M diamond," and more than 700 fans attended the game.
The idea of a college rivalry for Wake County caught on very quickly in Raleigh. The A&M team hosted Wake Forest College for Easter Monday games in 1900, 1901, and 1902. The game was popular from the start. A fan at the 1901 game noted that "an extremely large crowd" watched Wake win 12-6, including "young ladies from all three Raleigh schools," Baptist Female Seminary [later Meredith College], Peace, and St. Mary's.
A&M College continued "the semi-holiday of Easter Monday" into the new century, but had other opponents for several years, including the University at Chapel Hil and Trinity College in Durham. The holiday game with Wake Forest was resumed in 1907, to great anticipation. The Seaboard Airline Railroad offered a "shoofly" train for Baptist supporters to come to Raleigh from Wake Forest itself, as well as Henderson, Kittrell, Louisburg, Franklinton, and Youngsville. Wake won the game, 8-7, despite a "December breeze" and "soggy grounds" at the State Fairgrounds.
From press reports, it appears the resumed series was a highly anticipated event. The stands were divided up into blocs. As one early attendee recalled, "The Baptists sat in the left wing and sang ominous songs, and the Farmers on the right uttered their guttural rahs." Again, 1908, the shoofly train was held till the end of a game "witnessed by both student bodies" and "everyone in Raleigh." More than 2,500 people saw A&M win 4-3. As The News and Observer noted in a special front-page coverage, the game was alreadya "notable holiday attracting hundreds of visitors to this city" and the "largest baseball crowd" of the A&M season. By 1910, the contest had a regional appeal. All schools in the area were closed, and people came "from Fayetteville and Fuquay."
Many spectators came to see the girls as much as the guys. One spectator observed in 1911 that "the young ladies of Peace and St. Mary's will overrun the bleachers, presenting a solid mass of white, and those Easter bonnets so dear to their hearts." In 1915 "a fair bevy of St. Mary's girls divided their enthusiam" betwen the teams, but always, it was asserted in 1911, Meredith students would "be there en masse to cheer on the Wake Forest brothers."
The first on-field celebrity of the series was A&M catcher Frank Thompson. Thompson ('09), who graduated in 1909, drove in the winning run in the 1908 game, then returned in 1913 as the Wake Forest coach, "Good humor prevailed among rival rooters," it was said that year, when Thompson engineered a defeat of his old team. The A&M nine rebounded in 1914, the year they won their first "state championship" at the college ranks. Thompson then went on to service in the First World War and was killed on the Western Front as a member of the 15th Machine Gun Battalion. To honor his memory, State College named the new gymnasium after him in 1926.
After a skip in 1916, the series resumed, with Wake winning three of the four games played during the World War One years. By then the boosters had bestowed "annual eastern North Carolina classic" status to the game, the players becoming "ancient athletic rivals" with "the city celebrating a half holiday" along with "record breaking crowds from nearby cities." In the aftermath of the war, crowds excceeded 4,000, and lines of automobiles "for the first time" ringed the outfield.
Sports writers of the 1920s claimed that "the big game" was "a holiday habit" and "a cynosure for fans" that rivaled any autumn gridiron contest "from the standpoint of tradition." Indeed, said one in 1925, "Easter Monday is to college baseball what Fair Week is to football." The crowd, enabled by the growing presence of the automobile, swelled to 8,000 that year, when Wake won for the first time in the decade. More than 8,000 watched in 1926, when Wake won again. In 1927, "alumni [of both schools] came from all sections of the state" to see the game "according to the ancient custom." State College won 4-3 in 1928 on its way to another state championship.
The 1920s State fans had accumulated a treasure trove of Easter Monday memories that would rival a later generation's devotion to the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament.The 1921 game, tied after twelve innings, was postponed because of darkness, then when resumed a week later lasted another eleven innings. During the second half of the game, the respective coaches did the umpiring. In 1924 the wind "won the game." The smoke from a train passing campus hung over Riddick Field, and a Wake outfield lost a fly ball, letting State get the lead. Both schools disputed the eligibility of some key players in 1925, and " a wrangle" broke out in the twelfth when a Wake player's hook slide avoided a tag at Third. Then, wake executed a perfect suicide squeeze play to bring home the winning run. The Agromeck (State College Annual) called the result "the Easter Monday tragedy."
The Great Depression put a damper on just about everything that was electrifying about the 1920s, but fans still came to the big game, only to be rained out - symbolically, officials, "cognizant of the present state of pocketbooks", halved ticket prices. In 1935, at the height of the New Deal, state governmetn officials helped "happy days" be "here again" with an official half-holiday for state employees on Easter Monday. Longtime Secretary of State Thad Eure, who was a legislative cleark that year, remembered "that everyone wanted to go to the game." State employees boosted attendance further, and downtown Raleigh stores wre closed for the game. After losing to Wake for most of the Depression years, State rebounded in 1936 with an 8-7 victory. Wake continued to win for the next several years, until World War Two caused a curtailment in athletics generally. During the interim, State played the Navy Preflight team from UNC.
Although there was a "rivalry renewed" after the war - when Wake won five in a row - enthusiasm for the holiday game waned. As work habits changed and family patterns evolved after the war, Easter Monday began to be used in other ways. Crowds dwindled, and with the advent of the Altantic Coast Conference in 1953, scheduling needs changed. Most of all, the basis of for the rivalry ened when Wake Forest College was moved to Winston-Salem. Ironically, the last Easter Monday game was set in Raleigh the same day as "open house at the magificent new plant" at the Wake campus in Winston-Salem. And, the game was rained out. The next year State played Clemson on the date.