KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Paul Splittorff, the big, blonde left-hander who became the winningest pitcher in Kansas City Royals history and a popular broadcaster for the team, died Wednesday of complications from skin cancer. He was 64.
The Royals said Splittorff died at his home in the Kansas City suburb of Blue Springs, Mo. His family announced 10 days ago that he had been battling melanoma and oral cancer.
“This is a very difficult day for our organization,” Royals owner and CEO David Glass said. “We will not only miss the insight and humor that he injected into every telecast, but most importantly we will miss his friendship. He epitomized class.”
The Royals said the team will wear a memorial patch on the sleeve of their jerseys the rest of the season.
Fans noticed on opening day in 2009 that his speech had become slurred, though Splittorff kept his health issues private until his plight was reported by online columnist Greg Hall.
“He didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him,” Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre said.
Drafted by the expansion Royals in the 25th round in 1968, Splittorff spent his entire 15-year career in Kansas City. A tall, bespectacled lefty 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.”
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Splittorff had represented the Royals “with great class.”
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Paul Splittorff, a lifetime Royal who was beloved by the fans of Kansas City and respected throughout our game,” Selig said. “I admired his devotion to his craft for many years, especially when he played a key role in helping the Royals reach their first World Series in 1980.”
Splittorff was born in Evansville, Ind., and raised in Arlington Heights, Ill. A two-sport star in baseball and basketball at Morningside College in Iowa, he made his major league debut on Sept. 23, 1970, and soon 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’ 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).
Royals manager Ned Yost remembered facing Splittorff as a hitter for Milwaukee.
“He was a fierce competitor and always had good stuff,” Yost said. “Always well prepared. And he was like that here as a broadcaster. He was a guy that did his homework every single day.”
Splittorff was particularly effective in the Royals’ memorable playoff battles with the New York Yankees in the 1970s and ‘80s. In seven postseason games, 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 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.
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.
Though he did pre- and postgame shows, Splittorff was never able to regain the clear, distinct voice fans had known for more than two decades.
But he never quit trying.
“There was never a day where he just leaned on being Paul Splittorff,” Lefebvre said.
Splittorff is survived by his wife, Lynn, daughter, Jennifer, and son, Jamie. The club said visitation would be held next Monday at First United Methodist Church in Blue Springs and a funeral mass was scheduled for the following day at 11 a.m. in St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church in Blue Springs.
Splittorff gave a moving eulogy for Dick Howser when the former Royals 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,” he said then. “Our skipper is safe at home.”