Former Royal Splittorff dead at 64
Paul Splittorff, the winningest pitcher in Kansas City Royals history and a popular broadcaster for the team, died Wednesday, 10 days after his family announced he was battling oral cancer and melanoma. He was 64.
The Royals said Splittorff died at his home in the Kansas City suburb of Blue Springs, Mo., of complications from skin cancer.
Fans first noticed on opening day in 2009 that his speech had become slurred. He had kept his health issues strictly private until his plight was reported by columnist Greg Hall in the online site ”KC Confidential.”
”He didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him,” said Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre.
Drafted by the expansion Royals in the 25th round in 1968, Splittorff spent his entire 15-year career in Kansas City. A big, blond and bespectacled left-hander with a high leg kick, he often appeared to squint into the catcher’s mitt as though he was having trouble seeing the sign. This sometimes proved disconcerting to hitters who wondered if they should be ready to bail out if the ball came flying toward their head.
He retired during the 1984 season with a club-record 166 victories.
”When you’ve known somebody for so long and they’ve been such a big part of your life, it’s never easy to say goodbye,” Frank White, the Royals’ eight-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman, told The Associated Press. ”Our kids went to the same schools and grew up together. I have so many memories of Paul.”
Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett called Splittorff’s death a tremendous loss for the community and the team.
”He helped put the Kansas City Royals on the map and was such a great player for so many years,” Brett told KMBZ radio. ”He wasn’t a real boisterous guy in the clubhouse. He just went about his work quietly and let everybody else get the headlines.”
After making his major league debut on Sept. 23, 1970, Splittorff became a mainstay in the rotation. His best year was 1973 when he went 20-11, the Royals’ first 20-game winner.
Splittorff was not a hard thrower but had command of several pitches and always prepared carefully for every outing.
”He really got the most out of his ability,” said Denny Matthews, the Royals’ hall of fame radio broadcaster who called every major league game Splittorff pitched and became his close friend.
In 15 seasons, Splittorff was 166-143 with a 3.81 ERA. He also holds the Royals record for starts (392) and innings pitched (2,554 2-3).
He was particularly effective in the Royals’ memorable playoff battles with the New York Yankees in the 1970s and `80s. Against a Yankees’ lineup stocked with left-handed hitters, he was 2-0 with a 2.79 ERA.
He was also teased by former teammates for holding the informal record of giving up the longest home run in Kauffman Stadium history – a shot by Chicago White Sox slugger Dick Allen that carried almost to the top of the hill behind left field.
”Some people say Bo Jackson hit one farther,” White said with a grin. ”Bo’s was higher, but Dick Allen’s was all the way to the back of the hill. Paul got to where he could laugh about it, too.”
Splittorff lacked the natural talent of many of the top pitchers in Royals history, such as Steve Busby and Cy Young winners David Cone and Bret Saberhagen. But the fact he retired with more victories in a KC uniform than any of the others is a testament to the iron-willed work ethic that characterized both his baseball and broadcasting careers.
”Paul didn’t have that electric slider or that devastating curveball,” White said. ”But he was always steady and he always studied, always worked hard to do his very best. That’s why he was so successful both on and off the field.”
Even before he retired, Splittorff was preparing for a broadcasting career, covering high school football and basketball games for a local radio station. A two-sport star in baseball and basketball at Morningside College in Iowa, he was also a respected college basketball announcer.
At the time of his death, he was in his 24th season as a television analyst for FOX Sports Kansas City despite the speech problems that cropped up a couple years ago. White took over for him full time after opening day in 2009.
”He showed me how to prepare for games. He showed me what magazines to read, how to get ready,” White said. ”We actually did a couple of games together. During those two brief broadcasts, it was really fun. I will never forget those two broadcasts. They were very meaningful.”
Though he did pre- and post-game shows, Splittorff was never able to regain the clear, distinct voice fans had known for more than two decades.
But he never quit trying.
”I never worked a game with him where I felt like he was giving a little less effort today than he did yesterday, whether it was research, talking to a player of a coach about a guy he didn’t know much about,” said Lefebvre. ”There was never a day where he just leaned on being Paul Splittorff.”
Splittorff gave a moving eulogy for Dick Howser when the Royals’ former manager died of a brain tumor in 1987. Now, to a legion of friends and fans, his closing comment may seem especially poignant.
”He has completed his journey,” the Royals’ winningest pitcher said. ”Our skipper is safe at home.”