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Holiday Home Run

Holiday home run: An annual baseball game became so big, the state gave everyone the day off

by Jimmy Tomlin
Published in the High Point Enterprise on Easter Sunday - April 24, 2011. Read original article.

SONNY HEDGECOCK | HPE
High Point’s Hank Utley, a baseball historian, has written books about the early days of baseball in North Carolina.SONNY HEDGECOCK | HPE High Point’s Hank Utley, a baseball historian, has written books about the early days of baseball in North Carolina.

HIGH POINT – It’s been more than 20 years since North Carolinians observed the Easter Monday holiday – officially, at least – but Hank Utley still holds a soft spot in his heart.

You see, more than 60 years ago – when Easter Monday was still in its heyday as an official holiday – the 87-year-old High Point man played in the baseball game that gave birth to Easter Monday, North Carolina State vs. Wake Forest.

“Oh, it was a big deal,” says Utley, who played for State following World War II. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

According to Utley, who played in his first Easter Monday game in 1946 – when State was known as the Red Terrors – the annual game in Raleigh was as much an Easter parade as it was a baseball game.

“When we got to the park, there was already a bunch of women there,” Utley recalls. “And in the next hour, there must’ve been a thousand women who walked in that ballpark wearing Easter hats, corsages and Easter dresses. We all looked at the coach and said, ‘What in the hell is going on here?’”

What was going on was the same thing that had been going on for nearly half a century. It was a baseball game, always played on the Monday afternoon after Easter, at which local college girls – not to mention state legislators, their wives and baseball fans from across the state, many of whom rode specially designated trains – showed up in their Easter finery.

“What happened was, those college girls in the early part of the century couldn’t get home for Easter, so when they started playing this ball game, they started wearing their Easter dresses to the ball games,” says Utley, a baseball historian who has written books about early North Carolina baseball.

“Well, the Legislature had been adjourning for years to go to the ball game, and their wives saw those college girls all dressed up, so they started wearing their Easter dresses, too.”

Not only that, Utley adds with a chuckle, the women actually made the newspaper the next day.

“On the sports page!” he says. “Can you believe that?”

According to Utley, more than 3,500 people attended that 1946 game – a 6-3 win for State, by the way – “and I know over a thousand of them were dressed-up women, like they were in church,” he recalls.

Even after the very first Easter Monday game – played April 3, 1899, between North Carolina A&M (N.C. State) and Bingham Military School of Mebane – the local newspaper reported “a large number of ladies present” at the game, according to Utley’s research.

North Carolina A&M hosted various schools for Easter Monday games early on, but the idea of a rivalry between North Carolina A&M and cross-county (at the time) rival Wake Forest caught on quickly. Forty-six of the Easter Monday contests played between 1899 and 1956 were against Wake Forest.

As the tradition grew, so did the crowds, with attendance swelling to more than 8,000 for some games. By the 1930s, it seems everybody wanted to go to “the big game.” Not only were local college girls attending – from Raleigh schools Peace, Meredith and St. Mary’s – so were legislators, their wives and state employees. Even downtown stores in Raleigh were closing in time for the game.

Finally, in 1935, the General Assembly gave in and declared Easter Monday a legal holiday in North Carolina, much to the delight of all those people who wanted to attend the annual baseball game in Raleigh.

“One year they had a snowstorm on Easter Sunday, and the ball field was covered with a foot of snow,” Utley says. “Well, they went out and scraped that snow off that field because, as the newspaper said, there were two trains full of fans coming to see a ball game, and they played that ball game. Can you imagine that? That’s what a big event this thing was.”

The Easter Monday game continued through 1956, when the game was rained out and not rescheduled. By then, Wake Forest was moving to Winston-Salem, so the idea of a cross-county rivalry no longer existed.

Easter Monday as a holiday, however, continued into the late 1980s when, as The Charlotte Observer wrote, “The holiday that baseball birthed, banks have buried.” In 1987, the General Assembly – largely in response to complaints from the state’s banking industry – passed a bill moving the official Easter holiday from Easter Monday to Good Friday.

In 1988, the first year of the new holiday observance, one banking lobbyist explained to the Observer, “When we observed Easter Monday, the markets were closed when we were open, and were open when we were closed. In effect, we were out four days. By conforming with the 49 other states, it puts us in sync with domestic and international markets.”

Utley understands that, of course, but it doesn’t mean he has to like it.

jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579