By Joel Francis
When the Kansas City Royals opened finished their first year of baseball in 1969, the city was on the cusp of change. The Chiefs were about to win the Super Bowl. There were plans for a new airport and Crown Center was under development. Plans for a new sports complex for both professional teams were under way.
Within a few years the Royals were competing for post-season and World Series play. Many members of the Royals Hall of Fame — Frank White, Amos Otis, George Brett, Freddie Patek — were the offensive nucleus of that team. The Hall of Fame pitching rotation included Steve Busby and Larry Gura and Blue Springs residents Paul Splittorff and Dennis Leonard.
Leonard, the only three-time 20-game winner for the Royals, holds the club record for complete games and shutouts. Between 1975 and 1981, he won more games than any other right-handed pitcher in the majors.
Southpaw Paul Splittorff was Leonard’s foil. He was the team’s first 20-game winner in 1973 and holds club records for career wins, starts and innings pitched.
When Splittorff joined the Royals in 1970, home games were played at Municipal Stadium.
“That was a great old park. The field was immaculate, but the stands were kind of rough,” Splittorff said. “It was a great pitcher’s ballpark. Left field was 408 feet, then 369 down the line so it was a great park for a lefty.”
Fans had a chance to mingle with both clubs at the old park. The visiting team had to leave the dugout and walk up a ramp in the stands to get to their clubhouse.
“The bullpen bathroom was the same one the fans used in general admission,” Splittorff said.
The teams weren’t great in those opening years, but they held promise.
“Everything was on hold then, but we knew things were about to change,” Splittorff said. “We had a good bunch of guys.”
Veteran players like Hoyt Wilhelm and Bob Johnson were acquired, then traded for young promising players like John Mayberry, Hal McRae and Amos Otis.
“The whole thing was about trying to get young players on the verge. Cookie Rojas was the one veteran to come in and stay,” Splittorff said. “It seemed like most of them were really good trades.”
The early years
In 1973, the Royals opened their new home, Royals Stadium. The artificial turf of Royals Stadium replaced the grass at Municipal, making Royals Stadium the first park in the American League to have turf. Splittorff was on the hill for the Royals on April 10 in that first game against the Texas Rangers.
“It was a really cold night. We opened in Anaheim, and it was snowing when we landed. Our Monday workout was snowed out,” Splittorff said. “We had never worked out on turf. Everybody was so pumped.”
It was a new scene for everyone, but for Splittorff it was business as usual.
“I didn’t look around much Ð I did that the day before,” Splittorff said. “The first hitter was Davy Nelson. He hit the ball back to me, but because it was on turf it seemed to get on me real quick.”
Splittorff and the Royals ended up with a 12-1 victory that night. Amos Otis got the first hit and John Mayberry was the first to homer in the new park.
“All the significant firsts were ours that night,” Splittorff said.
That first year, 1973, was also the year Splittorff notched 20 wins, making him the first Royals pitcher to do so.
“I won 20 games early,” he said. “My best years were ’77, ’78, ’79 and ’80 as far as being a Major League pitcher with the combination of experience and not getting up in years.”
But while Splittorff was the team’s first big winner, he was working a winter job in the off-season.
“When I first came up most guys worked in the off-season,” Splittorff said. “I worked at Foremost Dairies as a salesman, did that for two or three years, then got a real estate license and got into that.”
During his first winter, Splittorff was a club promoter for the Royals.
“We had two guys assigned to Kansas and Missouri,” Splittorff remembered. “I was out of town every other week with a front office guy. We’d hit towns all over Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska Ð ticket outlets, small towns or radio affiliates.
“It was fine. It helped establish me and the ball club. People were still learning about us.”
In the days before free agency, off-season employment was a regular listing in baseball media guides, Splittorff said. For most of Splittorff’s career agents were rare. Instead an adviser or counselor might meet with players once a year.
“The hopes were to get to the big leagues, play five years, have a good year your first or second year, run your salary up, make $50,000 a year, buy a house and buy a business when you get out of the game,” Splittorff said. “Free agency changed all that.”
Splittorff was also one of the last pitchers in the American League and one of the few Royals pitchers to hit before the designated hitter rule was instated in 1973.
“I missed it for the first year or so because I did OK,” Splittorff said. “I could bunt and liked taking chances to help our team better than my mound opponent.
“I was disappointed they took that away from me, but I knew if we were losing in the fourth or fifth inning, I wouldn’t get replaced by a pinch-hitter.”
By the time Dennis Leonard joined the team late in 1974 winter jobs and batting pitchers were a thing of the past. Leonard came up in a fertile crop of rookies that included Frank White, George Brett and Al Cowens.
“I never played with any of them in the minors,” Leonard said. “I was drafted in ’72, George was drafted in ’71 and Frank came up through the academy, so we were never on a team together in the minors, but we all basically got here at the same time.”
Leonard went 0-4 in 1974 and was the last player cut in spring training the next year. He rejoined the Royals part-way through the 1975 season.
“In ’75, that was when (manager) Whitey (Herzog) came here and we stared putting things together more,” Leonard said. “Everybody started expanding. We had a good mix of veteran players who had been through it before and younger guys to see what they were doing.”
Leonard was brought up around the same time Steve Busby, the Royals’ ace, was hurt.
“As soon as he went down Leonard got here,” Splittorff said. “We never missed a beat because Leo was that good Ð we had another 20-game winner.”
While Busby was never the presence on the mound he once was, he was still an important member of the team.
“When Busby got hurt, not knowing hitters like him, he helped me figure out their weaknesses,” Leonard said. “I’d always go to him.”
The playoff years
In 1976 the Royals reached the playoffs for the first time and faced the New York Yankees in what would become a fall tradition.
“The first year we got in we were so happy to get there. The Angels beat the A’s to get us in,” Leonard remembered. “We were happy as a lark to get into the playoffs. Boy, when you get in the playoffs people start coming out of the woodwork. That first year was a real learning experience in the pressure that came out of post-season play.”
Splittorff had been on the disabled list for the last part of the 76 season.
“We had won a tough division, but they had done that,” Splittorff said. “I was concerned. Did this team grow up without me? At least they had been through a stretch drive.”
Splittorff had a chance to prove himself in game two when he relieved Leonard in the second inning. Splittorff threw several scoreless innings and recorded his first post-season win with a 7-3 victory. However, the Royals fell to the Yankees in five games.
The next fall the two teams met again. Splittorff threw the first game, a 7-2 win in New York.
“I always felt the first game at the other guy’s park was the most important,” Splittorff said, “and we won that one.”
Leonard pitched a complete victory game three and relieved Splittorff in the fifth game.
“I came out in the ninth inning, gave up a bloop single to Paul Blair and walked another. That’s when Whitey came out,” Leonard said. “I came out like, wow, this is my third year in the big leagues and I’m starting in the ninth. The way the fans reacted, I thought, OK I’ve got this game won. Being out there was such a high.”
Leonard never recovered from his mistakes though, and the Yankees won the game 5-3, taking the series.
“I think that was the highest high and the lowest low in my career, back to back,” Leonard said.
Some believe that the 1977 Royals, which went 102-60 for the season, was their best team ever.
“I think that year we had the best team in baseball,” Leonard said.
Splittorff dreams of what could have been that year.
“Where they got us was late in the game. If Quiz (reliever Dan Quisenberry) had come up earlier and Busby hadn’t got hurt, I don’t know that anyone could have touched us,” Splittorff said. “Gosh, that was bad break for us (when Busby got hurt), because if we’d had Busby and Leonard and the other guys, I don’t think another team could have stayed up.”
After falling to the Yankees in 1978, in 1980 it was the Royals and Yankees again in October. This time the Royals were armed with George Brett, who hit .390 during the regular season, reliever Dan Quisen berry and Leonard, who had capped his third 20-win season.
“That was kind of a magical year,” Leonard said. “Finally we had a reliever who was pretty dependable. In the playoffs we swept the Yankees. After three years of frustration, all of us who had come up together, finally got to go to the World Series.”
It was Splittorff’s final playoff appearance.
“You can do whatever you want in the regular season, but where your career comes down is what you do in the post-season,” Splittorff said. “That’s where you make your name and reputation and what the people remember.”
The Royals gave the Philadelphia Phillies their only World Championship to date in the 1980 World Series, losing in six games.
“We had finally gotten the monkey off our back,” Leonard said. “Remember all those guys I said came out of nowhere in the playoffs? That ain’t nothing compared to what comes with a World Series.”
During that era Splittorff developed a reputation as a Yankee killer.
“Howard Cosell started that,” Splittorff said. “He was the kind of guy when he’d cover things it’d be an event. When he spoke people listened.
“I hadn’t heard the term ‘Yankee killer’ before he called me that,” Splittorff continued. “It was because the Yankees were so good for so long, anyone with a good year was a Yankee killer.”
Both pitchers said team chemistry played a big role in developing those championship teams.
“I drove to the park with Split every day for eight years,” Leonard said. “Our wives would be so ticked off because we’d sit around the clubhouse and gossip, go over the game as a team.”
The nucleus of those teams had stayed together for a long time and had grown up together.
“We had gotten to know each other and our families had gotten to know each other,” Splittorff said. “Most of us were the same age and our kids were close to the same age so we had that in common, too.”
Mid-way through the 1984 season, Splittorff decided to retire from baseball.
“I was 37 and the pitching staff included Vida Blue and Gaylord Perry,” Splittorff said. “The Royals were at a point where they were re-tooling their pitching staff. The next year (Bret) Saberhagen, (Charlie) Liebrant and (Danny) Jackson all made the team.”
Having lost Amos Otis to the Pirates and Fred Patek to the Angles, the Royals looked to save some face and offered to guarantee the rest of Splittorff’s contract if he retired.
“They gave me the opportunity to go into the radio booth,” Splittorff said. “Fred White has been important to me in those regards.”
The Royals were also without Dennis Leonard in 1984, having lost him to a severe knee injury the season before.
“When I blew out my knee I had no idea what was in store,” Leonard said. “I had never been injured like that before.”
Surgery would have worked if Leonard had retired, but he wanted to compete. After four surgeries and two rehabilitation stints, Leonard made a few tentative relief appearances in 1985.
“It was kind of a hard deal,” Leonard said. “I was starting to throw a little bit, but I knew it wasn’t right to be put on the post-season roster.”
Leonard was in Florida for rehab when the team flew to St. Louis in the World Series.
“The day they won it I was sitting in an oyster bar, eating oysters and having a beer,” Leonard said. “I was like, you’ve got to be kiddin’ me. I was part of the organization and played with those guys and did everything they did that year. I felt a part of it but not a part of it.
“The one thing I treasure, though, is that World Series ring they gave me.”
Splittorff said he has no regrets in retiring the season before the world championship win.
“I was fine with it,” he said. “I had my group of guys from ’76 to ’84 and we were in a lot of post-season games, and were in it until it came right down to the last inning, the last out. The organization needed a break.”
Splittorff has been a full-time television analyst for the Royals since 1988.
Leonard made his triumphant return in 1986 when Danny Jackson was injured in spring training.
“I never expected that,” Leonard said. “I stepped in here at the K (Kauffman Stadium, then Royals Stadium), on national TV, having the opportunity to win a game. It was almost like my World Series.”
Leonard pitched a three-hit shutout, beating Toronto 1-0.
“Wow, I didn’t miss a beat,” Leonard said. “I lot of guys in the stands and in the dugout were pulling for me that day. I knew they were pulling just as hard for me as I was. They wanted to win the game just as much for me as I wanted to for them.
“It would have been nice to get a few more runs, though.”
By the end of the season, though, Leonard knew he was through. He noticed his arm wasn’t lasting as long and wasn’t bouncing back as quickly. He retired at the end of the season. Since baseball he has opened two Hallmark stores, which his wife runs, and helped coach the Raytown High School baseball team.
“I figured once I was done, I could fish, hunt and have fun,” Leonard said. “Other than the two stores, I can’t say I’ve worked. I can’t say I’ve worked a day in my life. Everything I did was play a game.”