New York Yankees pitcher Eddie Lee Whitson sat quietly at the bar of the Cross Keys Inn outside Baltimore, smiling as he peeled the label from the longneck bottle of Budweiser in front of him. It was early in the evening of Saturday, Sept. 21, 1985, and nothing about the scene presaged what was to come. Six hours later, in the same room, during a brutal if sometimes comical 20-minute brawl, Whitson would beat up his manager, Billy Martin.
The 57-year-old Martin would end up with a cast on his broken right arm, the first time that the volatile, fast-punching Martin lost a fight with one of his players—or with almost anyone, for that matter. After four decades in the spotlight, and a hefty pugilistic record, it was also the last of Martin’s public fisticuffs.
But at the beginning of that long night, Whitson was at ease when I approached him at the Cross Keys Inn bar. I was in my first year as a traveling Yankee beat writer, but Whitson had always been easy to talk to, and besides, on this day there was gossip to dispense. The night before, in an episode that has since been overshadowed by the more momentous Whitson-Martin clash, Martin had nearly exchanged blows with a bridegroom celebrating his wedding night. That, not surprisingly, was the scuffle everyone was talking about the next day. It had occurred just a few feet from where Whitson was sitting. I had witnessed the short, mostly amusing skirmish but Whitson had not. I joined him for a beer and related the details of the bridegroom tussle. Despite his confrontational reputation, Billy Martin was almost always charming, engaging and sociable with strangers in bars. People would flock to him and Billy would befriend them, as he did with the newlyweds that Friday night. He bought them a bottle of champagne and danced with the bride. Eventually, the couple left the bar for their hotel room, but minutes later the groom, still in his tuxedo and weaving unsteadily, reappeared at Billy’s side.
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“Hey, Billy, we’ve got to talk,” he said loudly. “You told my wife she has a potbelly.”
While it was hard to believe that he had ever heard such an accusation before, especially from a bridegroom, Billy nevertheless seemed unmoved.
“I did not say she had a potbelly,” Billy said, flatly and without emotion. He pointed at another woman at the bar with her husband and added, “I said this woman had a fat ass.”
Now there were two men upset at Billy. Some minor shoving ensued. Players and coaches intervened. That is all there was to it, and in the long, rich history of the Yankees, the incident has been largely forgotten.
But at the time, Whitson, who day by day in 1985 had developed a hatred of Billy, was fascinated by what he had heard. He looked around the bar. “I’m having a beer now, then getting out of here before the real festivities start,” he said with a laugh. He did not keep his word.
The seeds for the Whitson-Martin fight had been sown months earlier. Whitson despised the way Billy wanted to call every pitch and made each outing seem a do-or-die affair, and Billy thought Whitson lacked the stomach to handle the pressure of playing New York. But the flash point that weekend in Baltimore was Billy’s decision to scratch Whitson from his scheduled start on Friday, Sept. 20. The Yankees had lost seven consecutive games, but with the American League East title still in reach, Billy did not trust Whitson to end the losing streak. Whitson’s ERA over his previous four starts was 7.32. When Whitson got the news that he would not be pitching, he kicked his spikes across the floor of the visiting clubhouse at Memorial Stadium and flung his glove in his locker. His teammates ignored him.
Whitson, signed as a free agent from San Diego in the offseason, was an odd fit on the 1985 Yankees, a no-nonsense team led by Don Mattingly and three future Hall of Famers—Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Phil Niekro. High-strung and unpredictable, Whitson had few close friends in the Yankees clubhouse, where a veteran team respected quiet, consistent efficiency to counteract the tension and instability of George Steinbrenner’s bombastic reign.
Raised in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, Whitson had started the season 1-6 and saved his worst outings for the mound at Yankee Stadium, where he was booed mercilessly. By September, the Yankees were trying to use Whitson only on the road, but now Billy had circumvented that plan as well. Whitson seethed but said nothing.
On Saturday, Sept. 21, after the Yankees’ slump ended with an afternoon victory, Whitson eventually left the Cross Keys Inn for dinner in downtown Baltimore seven miles away. Almost the entire Yankees traveling party did the same. But by 11:45 p.m., everyone was back at the Cross Keys bar just off the lobby, largely because there were no other late-night options in the area. Billy was seated at the bar talking with Dale Berra, Yogi’s son, and Dale’s wife, Leigh. Whitson, who, like Billy, had been drinking most of the night, was in a booth behind Billy.
Next to Whitson, only a few feet away, was Albert Millus, an attorney from Binghamton, N.Y., who had tickets to the games in Baltimore.
“Whitson was agitated and talking loudly about Billy Martin,” Millus said in an interview years later. “A woman, I think Dale Berra’s wife, came over to Whitson and was trying to calm him. But Whitson kept saying things like, ‘That man won’t pitch me’ or ‘That S.O.B. won’t play me.’”
In a sworn affidavit he later provided to investigators, Millus described what happened next: “At this point I deduced that Mr. Whitson was a ballplayer ... I turned to look at him. When Mr. Whitson saw me looking at him, he focused his attention on me, and loudly demanded to know why I was eavesdropping on his conversation.”
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Several Yankees had privately been worried that Whitson was going to snap and fight someone before the season ended, and they feared it would not be a small-time scrap. In addition to being tall and barrel-chested (6'3" and 200 lbs), Whitson had also trained in martial arts. The Whitson and Millus exchange grew noisier and more contentious until Billy jumped up and moved in Whitson’s direction. Within seconds, Millus said, Whitson grabbed him by the throat. With most of the bar patrons now watching, Billy said to Whitson, “Eddie, you’re drunk, you don’t need this.”
Those were not words that Whitson wanted to hear, and Billy was probably the last person on Earth from whom he wanted to hear them. Whitson’s eyes were wild and his face contorted as he told Billy to get away.
“What’s the matter with you—you’re crazy,” Billy said. “I’m trying to help you. What’s wrong with you?”
Whitson cursed at Billy and then, according to several witnesses, swung at him.
Billy had come over as a peacemaker but in an instant that was no longer his intent. Billy and Whitson were furiously wrestling in a dark bar just past midnight. Punches were thrown, and according to Billy, Whitson kicked at him several times, with Billy blocking one of the attempts with his forearm. The two men tumbled to the floor after about 20 seconds and then they were separated by various Yankees personnel.
Whitson was now yelling at Billy for starting the fight. If the details of the first punch remain murky, the rest of this four-round brawl is not in dispute. A handful of beat writers, including me, watched it blow-by-blow, and took notes.
When Billy and Whitson were initially separated, Billy appeared to compose himself quickly. He kept saying, “What’s wrong with that guy? Can’t he hold his liquor?”
Whitson, however, was far from composed. He was enraged and kept screaming insults at Billy. A yelling Whitson was pushed and half-dragged out of the bar. Billy followed after him.
In the lobby, Whitson was being held from behind with his arms pinned to his sides, but he was still able to lunge at Billy. Billy met that aggression with a charge of his own but Whitson was quicker. Though his arms were being held, Whitson swung his leg powerfully and kicked Billy squarely in the groin.
The kick seemed to lift Billy off the ground, and everyone watching seemed either to gasp or wince. The crowd parted for a second, waiting most likely for Billy to drop to the floor. He was doubled over in pain. But then he stood up straight and took a deep breath, like something a character in an action movie would do. It was as if he had suddenly found new strength. And then, in a firm, defiant voice he said to Whitson, “Now I’m going to have to kill you.”
Billy stormed at Whitson. But cooler heads interceded and summarily pushed Whitson out of the lobby toward the entranceway to the hotel, which included a circular driveway. Two or three Yankees players and coaches, including Gene Michael, tried to corral and appease Whitson outside while another one or two Yankees employees desperately scurried around the hotel lobby in an effort to keep Billy from going outside. No one had their hands on Billy; it was more like a game of tag or dodge ball with multiple people darting around trying to block Billy’s path. Billy was making evasive counter moves, like a football running back hoping to evade a linebacker.
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Near the sliding glass door entrance, at one point the catcher Ron Hassey played cat-and-mouse with Billy. With his back to the sliding glass door, Hassey tried to stay in Billy’s way, periodically stepping on the sensor that opened the door. As the doors opened and shut, Billy would back away and try to get around Hassey some other way.
Finally, Billy faked left and went right, which got Hassey to step on the door sensor but also left Hassey out of position.
Once outside, Billy threw himself at the group enveloping Whitson. It became a four-man scrum, almost like a group hug except Billy and Whitson were snarling at each other and trying to throw punches.
Eventually, some legs in the group got tangled and the whole mass of men fell over with Billy on the bottom of the pile. Billy hit the ground with a thud, the back of his head loudly smacking the pavement.
That confrontation brought more bodies out into the hotel entranceway, and this time Whitson was pushed in the direction of the hotel parking garage, a multi-level structure maybe 200 feet from the hotel, though still attached to it.
Whitson yelled at Billy: “You’ve tried to bury me here; you’re trying to ruin me.
Billy, looking dazed, was guided back into the hotel lobby. His right arm was swelling and he was being attended to by trainer Gene Monahan. Lou Piniella, the team’s hitting coach and the most respected member of the staff, talked Billy into going to his room. Piniella, Monahan and Billy got on elevator to head to Billy’s third-floor room. Reporters dashed up the stairs after them.
Unbeknownst to those escorting Billy, the group shepherding Whitson had circled around to the parking garage’s basement elevator. They were taking Whitson to his third-floor room. When Billy’s elevator opened on the third floor so did Whitson’s just a few feet away. Billy and Whitson were suddenly face-to-face and immediately charged at each other for a fourth round of action. It had been about 20 minutes since the first punch or kick. This last confrontation was benign by comparison to the preceding ones—mostly shouted incriminations. Billy was ultimately led down a hallway to the right while Whitson was hustled down a different hallway.
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In his room, Whitson dabbed at a cut lip and abrasions on his arms. The Yankees traveling secretary, Bill (Killer) Kane, arranged for Whitson to be driven to New York early the next morning. Then Kane called Steinbrenner to give him the news.
Kane described the opening struggle, then the part in which Billy was kicked in the crotch.
“George was saying, ‘Wait, they fought again, and what happened then?’” Kane explained years later with a laugh. “And I said, ‘Wait, George, there’s more.’ And he goes, ‘More? Whatta ya mean more?’”
Piniella and Monahan were in Billy’s room. “I was checking out the arm and you could feel the bones moving and cracking,” Monahan said.
“Just wrap my arm up, I’m fine,” Billy told Monahan. Piniella recalled that he was worried for Billy.
“He looked terrible; he was really beat up,” Piniella said. “But, you know, Billy was one tough guy. He said to me, ‘Do me a favor and go knock on Whitson’s room. Tell him I’ll meet him in the parking lot in five minutes.’
“I looked at him and said, ‘That Scotch is lying to you, Billy. Why don’t you do me a favor and stay here.’”
About an hour later, Billy went to a nearby emergency room.
The next morning, the Memorial Stadium visiting clubhouse was swarming with reporters and television camera crews. Billy arrived with his arm in a sling and walked through the locker room. A Baltimore TV reporter came alongside, stuck a microphone in his face and asked, “What happened to your arm, Mr. Martin?”
Billy deadpanned: “I hurt it bowling.”
In his office, he grimly answered questions from the assembled media for about five minutes, but refused to discuss the fight. Then he cleared the room except for the eight writers from the New York area newspapers. His countenance changed. Billy smiled. He was almost cheerful.
“It figures that when I go over to try and stop a fight, I get in an even bigger one,” he said with a grin. “I was trying to break it up. That’s always how you get hurt.”
Knowing that several of the writers had witnessed the fight, he replayed sections of it, as if it had been something out of a game, and he asked, “Did you see when he kicked me?”
Billy did not mention Whitson by name, nor did he criticize him. He only seemed upset that Whitson had used his legs in the brawl.
“I can’t fight feet,” Billy said.
It became like a scene from any other day in Billy’s office. He was funny, amiable, irreverent and just a bit irrational. The Yankees won again that afternoon. “It’s over; these things happen on teams,” Billy said after the game. “You move on.”
Said one reporter: “But you’ve never had a fight where you ended up with the broken arm.”
Billy glared. It appeared as if he wanted to say something biting or spiteful. But he didn’t.
Instead, he said only, “Hey, we’ve won two in a row.”
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Whitson pitched once the rest of the year (a start with no decision). Otherwise, he watched games from the bullpen. The Yankees won nine of their next 12 and finished with 97 victories, two games behind division champion Toronto. Since wild card playoff teams would not become part of baseball for another 10 seasons, the Yankees—with the fourth best record in the game—went home.
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“I mean, 97 wins and you’re fired?” Mattingly said many years later, shaking his head as he recalled the tumultuous 1985 season.
Then Mattingly added, “At the same time, by then it was getting pretty hard to be surprised by anything.”
This piece was adapted by Bill Pennington from his new book Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius.