KANSAS CITY — Paul Splittorff, the all-time wins leader in Kansas City Royals history and a popular broadcaster for the team, died Wednesday after a battle with oral cancer and melanoma, the club announced.
Splittorff, 64, died at his home in the Kansas City suburb of Blue Springs, the team said.
Splittorff was drafted by the expansion Royals in the 25th round in 1968 and 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 — proving disconcerting to hitters who wondered if they should be ready to bail out if the ball should come toward their head.
He retired during the 1984 season with a club-record 166 victories.
He had already been preparing for a broadcasting career, covering high school football and basketball games for a local radio station, and he soon joined the Royals' television crew. A two-sport star in baseball and basketball at Morningside College in Iowa, Splittorff also was a respected college basketball announcer.
He 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.
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 Kansas City uniform than any of the others is a testament to the iron-willed work ethic that characterized both his baseball and broadcasting careers.
"He was a good athlete, but he had to work at it, and he did. He recognized that. He always worked hard," Matthews said.
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).
After making his major league debut on Sept. 23, 1970, he became a mainstay in the rotation. His best year was 1973 when he went 20-11 and became the Royals' first 20-game winner. He was 19-13 in 1978. He retired in 1984 when the Royals brought up several talented young pitchers, including Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza, who would help them win the 1985 World Series.
As his baseball career wound down, he began broadcasting high school football and basketball games for a local radio station, determined to break into broadcasting. He was in his 24th season as a television analyst for FOX Sports Kansas City.
Fans noticed something was wrong on opening day in 2009 when his speech seemed slurred. He returned home after that first game in Chicago and began working on regaining his voice. Frank White, a longtime teammate on the Royals' pennant-winning teams of the 1970s and '80s, took over as the Royals' analyst, and Splittorff moved mostly into pre- and post-game broadcasts. He was never able to regain the clear, distinct voice that fans had known for more than two decades.
Splittorff kept his health issues as private as possible, explaining that his voice problems were the result of a virus.
"He didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him," Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre said.
In 15 seasons, Splittorff was 166-143 with a 3.81 ERA. He was in four postseasons with the Royals, 1976-78 and the 1980 World Series against Philadelphia.
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.
Colleagues said Splittorff's work habits set him apart from many former players who transition from the playing field to the broadcast booth without taking time to learn the craft.
"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. There are many former players who get into broadcasting, in whatever sport. But there are very few who in the very end are regarded as a professional broadcaster. There's probably a whole generation of kids in Kansas City who don't know Paul Splittorff pitched for Kansas City and won 166 games. He's just a Royals broadcaster who gives them great information, great content every game."