He was the forever Royal.
Paul Splittorff, who entertained generations of Kansas City Royals fans first as a durable lefty pitcher and then as an insightful and respected broadcaster, died Wednesday morning after a battle with oral cancer and melanoma.
He was 64.
David Holtzman, Royals director of media relations, said that Splittorff died at his Blue Springs home from complications of melanoma.
How you appreciated “Splitt” depended on your entry point in his career.
To younger fans, Splittorff served behind the microphone as a voice and conscience of Royals teams that knew mostly woeful times.
For veteran Royals watchers, Splittorff was the lanky lefty who couldn’t light up the radar gun with his fastball but fooled enough hitters in his 15 years to become the club’s career leader in victories with 166.
Nobody who suited up for the Royals has been associated with the franchise longer than Splitt. He was a Royal before there was a team, the 25th-round draft selection in 1968, the year before Kansas City took the field.
“I’d never even heard of the Royals,” Splittorff said in a 1979 interview. “I knew Kansas City was going to get a franchise, but I hadn’t seen any uniforms or even a logo. I was a little disappointed.”
Chagrin melted away quickly, especially when Splittorff realized opportunity would present itself in a new environment. Of the 31 pitchers in the Royals’ first camp, five were left-handers. The path was clear for quick advancement, and Splittorff made his major-league debut in 1970.
Splittorff was in the majors for good in 1971, and two years later became the Royals’ first 20-game winner. That season he pitched the best game of his career, surrendering a first-inning one-out walk and single at Oakland and retiring the next 26.
Two years later, he passed Dick Drago as the franchise’s leader in career triumphs and has resided on the top ever since.
Upon his retirement in 1984, Splittorff referred to himself as more of a Clydesdale than a thoroughbred, a workhorse type of pitcher who relied on guile and instinct more than overpowering stuff.
But the stuff worked. Nature made him a pitch-to-contact thrower. The fastball tailed away from right-handers. Lefties beat his breaking ball in the ground.
His 14-year playing career was spent entirely with the Royals and the good times far outweighed the bad.
Splittorff’s biggest disappointment came in 1980, when the Royals reached the World Series for the first time, and manager Jim Frey told Splitt he wouldn’t be in the starting rotation despite a 14-11 record and a history of postseason success.
Splittorff wound up tossing some mop-up innings in the sixth game that clinched the series for Philadelphia, and when Frey was fired the next season, Splitt didn’t hide his feelings. “I never enjoyed playing for him,” he said. “He’s the first manager I never really cared for.”
At that point, Splittorff’s career seemed to be winding down. But in 1982, he signed a contract that extended for a second year with a condition: He’d have to make either 27 starts or pitch 180 innings in 1983 to get another year. In his 27th start that year, Splittorff won his team-best 13th game.
But in 1984, the Royals’ rotation included some of the game’s best young arms: Bret Saberhagan, Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson. Splittorff, at 37, retired in July.
His move from the clubhouse to broadcaster’s booth was immediate and smooth, and a new generation of Royals fans would recognize Splittorff in a sports coat and not his No. 34 Royals jersey.
“As an announcer, he was just terrific,” said Justin Hutman before a Royals game at Kauffman Stadium earlier this week.
“Royals and Big 12 basketball,” said Tom Hilboldt. “He’s been my favorite announcer.”
Hutman and Hildboldt are 25-year-olds from Kansas City who only know Splittorff as a broadcaster.
They arrived at the ballpark with 23-year-old friend James Forrester of Kansas City and talked about how favorably he compared in his field.
“It’s like with Mitch Holthus,” Forrester said of the Chiefs’ play-by-play voice. “You hear the voice, and that’s your team.”
Big Eight and Big 12, UMKC, even high school football, Splittorff called it all. As he did in pitching, he worked his way through the ranks calling sports other than baseball, starting an announcing career while sitting in the bleachers calling football games at Blue Springs High for KKJC.
When he coached at Texas Tech, legend Bob Knight had little use for postgame interviews. But he always talked to Splittorff.
To another generation, Splittorff represents the best of times for the Royals, always in contention and often division winners.
“He was actually my favorite,” said Mark Burton, 56, of Kansas City. “Remember that big, high leg kick? It was classic.
“And he was a Yankee killer. That’s how far back we go.”
Yankee killer indeed. In four American League Championship Series appearances against New York, Splittorff went 2-0 with a 2.68 ERA. He was the winning pitcher in the Royals’ first postseason victory, the second game of the 1976 American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
Burton was reminiscing with Teri Adams, 52 and her brother Chuck, 48, from Kansas City. They remember the days at Municipal Stadium, where Splittorff pitched for three seasons.
They marveled at how Splitt was never named to an All-Star squad despite such success as becoming the franchise’s first 20-game winner. But mostly they appreciated what Spittlorff has meant to the community.
“He’s a great ambassador for Kansas City,” Chuck Adams said.
Splittorff’s 166-143 career record reflects a different era of starting pitching. His 88 complete games are second all-time on the Royals’ ledger, and he tops the club in starts (392) and innings (2,554 2/3).
Splittorff was named to the Royals’ 25th anniversary team in 1993, and was the Royals’ pitcher of the year in 1973.
Splittorff became a member of the organization before the Royals fielded a team. After playing baseball and basketball at Morningside College in Iowa, he was a 25th-round selection in the 1968 draft, the year before Kansas City debuted as an expansion franchise.
Longtime Royals scout Art Stewart remembered Splittorff even earlier, as a high school pitcher in Arlington Heights, Ill.
“I saw him coming out of high school, and he couldn’t blacken your eye with his fastball,” Stewart said. “But you talk about moxie and savvy,” Stewart said. “Some guys have that natural gift. That’s what got him to the big leagues.”
It’s also what made him popular behind the microphone. As a broadcaster, Splittorff’s honesty was refreshing.
“He’s very knowledgeable about the game, always brings a great perspective about how the game is supposed to be played,” said Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. “A true professional.”