Former Kansas City Royals pitching star and longtime broadcaster of college basketball and Royals' baseball, Paul Splittorff, lost his fight with cancer early Wednesday morning. The former major-leaguer-turned-broadcaster died at his home in Blue Springs, Mo., of complications from skin cancer. He was 64 years old.
Splittorff had been admitted to an area hospital this past weekend, at which time his family publicly disclosed that the former Royals' Hall-of-Famer had been receiving treatment for oral cancer and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
The lanky left-hander was a 25th-round selection by the Royals in their first amateur draft in 1968, the year before the team made its major-league debut. In a 15-year playing career with the Royals from 1970 to 1984, the man who often was referred to as "the big left-hander" or "Lefty" or just plain "Split" compiled a career record of 166-143, pitched on four playoff teams and was a member of Kansas City's starting pitching rotation when the team played in its first World Series in 1980 vs. the Philadelphia Phillies.
Splittorff was never the most imposing of physical specimens. He would beat you as much, if not more so, with his brain than with his brawn. He would study hitters, his former managers and teammates have said, and had the uncanny ability, after seeing or pitching to a batter, to remember what the pitch was and how the batter handled a particular pitch. The tall left-hander was a dedicated student of the game, and he used that acquired knowledge to make him a better player and enable him to make steady, solid contributions, despite his physical limitations, throughout his playing career.
Unlike many of the more popular Royals alumni who left town or slowly faded out of our memories after their playing days ended, Splittorff stayed in town and began a second career in the world of sports broadcasting. He started out doing high school football games for a small radio station in Blue Springs, Mo., where he lived.
Three years after he retired from Major League Baseball, Splittorff was recognized by his former team as the fifth inductee into the Royals Hall of Fame. By then, the man who for 15 accomplished years wore the No. 34 on the back of his work uniform was several years into his new career as a broadcaster.
Splittorff approached his broadcasting duties with the same relentless work ethic and unmitigated desire to be as good as he could be as he did in his baseball career. He was willing to start at the bottom of the sports broadcasting food chain (high school sports) and work his way up, and he showed his uncharacteristic adaptability and versatility by doing play-by-play and color commentary in sports (in this case, college basketball) that fell outside of his professional celebrity and expertise.
Originally from Evansville, Ind., Splittorff served as a college basketball analyst on Big 12 Network broadcasts in the offseason for a number of years and provided color analysis during the baseball season. He partnered with play-by-lay announcers Denny Matthews and Ryan Lefebvre, on Royals' TV broadcasts. And he actually became very good at his new trade, almost as if he was a born natural. That was what Splittorff always wanted you to think...in everything he set out to do.
"There are many former players who've tried broadcasting," Lefebvre said. "but there are very few who became professional broadcasters."
About this time a couple of years,it became very noticeable in his local broadcast assignments that something was not right with his voice. The condition persisted, but Splittorff passed it off, advising anyone who would ask that it was just a virus.
Splittorff stepped aside from his TV game coverage duties, with former Royals teammate Frank White, himself a member of the Royals Hall of Fame, taking his place. Splittorff has continued to do pregame and postgame shows on the Royals TV network the past two seasons, and he was doing so again this season until this past weekend, although it seemed to be getting more difficult to understand him because of his slurred speech.
Those who have known Splittorff a long time and know him well say that he was as interesting and friendly a person as you would ever want to meet. While he was proud of his on-field and off-the-field accomplishments, he also was a very private and humble person, which is why he never felt it was necessary or wanted to make his health condition public knowledge. He never wanted the attention to be on him, but rather on the games and the ballplayers he was covering.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but now we know that the increasing difficulty Splittorff was having with his voice and speech patterns was far more serious than just a viral infection, but rather complications from the advancement of cancer. And now he is literally in the late innings in the fight of his life.
Splittorff was always a fighter and a person who was willing to work harder than everyone else and determined and disciplined enough to do and be the best he could at anything he endeavored to do.
Said Lefebvre: I never worked a game with him where I felt like he was giving a little less effort today than he did yesterday. There was never a day he just leaned on being Paul Splittorff."
That was the life Paul Splittorff lived. He may not physically be with us any longer, but his memory and legacy lives on. He may have been a very private man, but all of us benefited in some way from his participation and presence in our community these past 40 years.