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Retro Baltimore: When Yankees manager Billy Martin brawled at the Cross Keys Inn

The fight that made sports history began in the early hours of a September Sunday morning at a most unlikely Baltimore venue — the normally restrained Cross Keys Inn off Falls Road, midway between Mount Washington and Roland Park.

In 1985, visiting baseball teams stayed at the inn — not in downtown Baltimore — because their games were played at the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street in Ednor Gardens. And the Cross Keys Inn was a popular convening place.

The New York Yankees were playing the Orioles toward the end of the season. They needed to win that weekend to stay in contention in the American League East. “]They arrived in Baltimore for a Friday game Sept. 20 and lost.

But at that game, New York Yankees manager Billy Martin made a scheduling change and scratched Ed Whitson, a pitcher Sports Illustrated magazine once described as “high strung and unpredictable” from pitching the next game, the second of the weekend series.

Martin was feeling pressure to win that weekend. (The Yankees went on to beat the Orioles on Saturday and Sunday but missed the postseason.) Whitson, annoyed at sitting the game out, went to a downtown restaurant and seemingly consumed more than crabcakes. By 11:45 p.m. Saturday, he was back at the Cross Keys Inn and engaging a hotel patron in loud talk.

Martin, also in the lobby bar, strolled over to the pitcher and said, “Eddie, you’re drunk. You don’t need this.”

The event is still recalled — Maryland Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg recently resurrected this chestnut at a social event with this reporter.

The Yankees’ roughhouse antics were well known. The hotel bar fight garnered media coverage because numerous baseball beat writers were present that night. Some reporters were among those who tried to restrain the two combatants.

“The simmering Yankees’ pot finally boiled over at the Cross Keys Inn early yesterday morning, when manager Billy Martin and pitcher Ed Whitson tangled in a 20-minute altercation that left Martin with a broken ulnar bone in his right arm,” The Sun reported, adding that a hotel security guard described the fight as “one of most brutal” he had ever seen.

“The fight with Whitson was by far the more serious encounter. Witnesses said it began in the bar, moved to the hotel lobby, where Whitson kicked Martin in the groin, then moved outside the hotel, where Whitson broke away from people restraining him, rushed at Martin and knocked him down, winding up on top of him,” The New York Times reported. “An enraged Martin later said he thought Whitson had broken the manager’s right arm when he kicked him one of several times.”

Sports Illustrated writer Bill Pennington wrote of the event years later: “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.”

Sun sports editor Bob Maisel wrote a column headlined, “Martin’s actions not surprising in view of Yankees lack of class.”

When Martin arrived at Memorial Stadium that Sunday afternoon, he was stormed by reporters who wanted to know what had happened. His arm was in a cast and supported by a sling.

When a Baltimore TV reporter asked what happened, a sarcastic Martin, who died in 1989, replied, “I hurt it bowling.”