Beautiful dresses, big hats and baseball. For more than 50 years, the Easter Monday baseball game between Wake Forest and NC State was an event unlike any other on the schools’ athletics schedules. Women of all ages turned out wearing eloquent dresses, fancy hats and beautiful corsages. People from all over the state — including legislators and governors — dressed in their Sunday best to attend the game and the annual NC State Pi Kappa Alpha (PKA) ball, which by the 1920s was attracting as many as 6,000 guests.
NC State plays Wake Forest this weekend in Winston-Salem, and we thought it would be a good time to look back at this chapter in NC State sports history. Robert “Hank” Utley ’50, a Concord native, played third base for NC State in the late 1940s and participated in four Easter Monday games after returning from military service. The author of two books on baseball, he has researched Easter Monday and talks here to NC State magazine intern Kelly McDonough.
How did the tradition begin?
It all started in 1899 when NC State played a military school from Mebane. The thing that made Easter Monday so big in North Carolina happened in 1906. A.B. Duke, [the son of one of Duke University’s founders], had guests down from New York and Yale University, and it was all over the social pages. They drove those dirty roads from Durham to Raleigh, in two cars loaded with [northerners], to see this Easter Monday ballgame in Raleigh.
The second thing that happened in 1906 was Pi Kappa Alpha started having its [ball] on Monday night. That Easter Monday dance was the biggest thing. It spirited on with A.B. Duke traveling over, and the Easter Monday game became a “go-see-and-be-seen” event.
The legislature, as early as 1900, adjourned to go to the ballgame. They took out special buggies, and their wives went with them. [The legislators’ wives] noticed that all these college girls from Meredith, St. Mary’s and Peace were attending the ballgame wearing their Easter dresses, hats and corsages. That influenced [them] to start doing the same thing.
It was 1906 that created the social significance of this game, and it continued to grow. And instead of having different teams come in, they ended up just playing Wake Forest. The two railroads brought in several thousand fans and made it that much bigger for the state.
Why did the legislature get involved?
No one was working in Raleigh [on that day] except the clerks and the state government. They had been [complaining] for years about everyone going to the game and them working. On April 19, 1935, the legislature passed the law making the next Easter Monday a legal banking holiday so that everyone could go to the ballgame.
What was your first Easter Monday game like?
I was a 22-year-old veteran out of the US Army Air Corps. I played baseball all my life. So, I went out for the team and made it. The coach, Vic Sorrell, was a Wake Forest alumnus, and it was his first year of coaching at NC State. He told us “Monday were going to dress here in the gymnasium and take a special bus to a big professional ballpark uptown and play Wake Forest.” Well, that didn’t mean too much to us. We were just happy to be home from the service and playing baseball. But we walked into that ballpark — Devereaux Meadow Park — and if there was one girl there, there must have been 700 or 800, sitting there like they were in church with their Easter dresses on. Coach Sorrell said, “It’s like an Easter parade, and the legislature will show up next with their wives all dressed up, hundreds of them.”
I never will forget, in playing four years of college ball, walking into that ballpark that first Easter Monday. Incidentally, we won that Easter Monday game in 1946 but we didn’t win any more while I was in school. NC State lost more of those Easter Monday games than they won, and it was all because of the partying that went on, starting on Saturday night with the girls coming in from out of town.
Why did the tradition end?
The Easter Monday tradition ended [in 1956] with Wake Forest moving to Winston-Salem. That game was the basis for all the other activities. The PKA Ball also ended when Wake moved. . . . Then the banks got to [complaining] because they were losing two days business. So the holiday stopped being a holiday in 1988, when it was changed to Good Friday.