When the Royals began play in 1969, it had only been 30 years since baseball had first aired on a television set. Baseball had been a game for radio, and many clubs were still not certain how to handle the newer medium of moving pictures. The Royals aired 26 games on television that first year, all on the road, mostly on the weekend. Some of the games aired in black-and-white. The Royals were very much in the norm at that time, with the cross-state Cardinals airing the same number of games, and nine other clubs carrying fewer games. The expansion Seattle Pilots did not even secure a television deal for their only season in the Northwest, part of the reason for their demise.
The Kansas City Athletics had aired games on KCMO with Lynn Faris, Bruce Rice, Monte Moore, Red Rush, and George Bryson all doing games on the radio and television at some point. But the new Royals organization wanted fresh faces that would last in Kansas City.
For a color analyst, they hired a St. Louis native and former Cardinals infielder, Bud Blattner. Blattner had a wealth of experience, doing radio for the Cardinals and St. Louis Browns as well as the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks, and he had some national experience doing some games for ABC and CBS. He left CBS after a dispute with his partner, Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, that author Curt Smith in his book Voices of Summer, describes:
"Dean was, yes, Falstaffian. Bud Blattner liked fact and strategy. Diz shunned biography. 'People liked him giving everything but the score' -- fishing, hunting, thanking Grandma's Biscuits for meals, said Bud -- 'but wanted me to restore sanity.’"
Blattner spent seven seasons broadcasting for the Angels (replaced by Dick Enberg) before joining up with the upstart Royals. The Royals paired the then 49-year old Blattner with a man nearly half his age. Dennis Matthews was a 26-year old sports director for WMBD in Peoria, Illinois. He had worked on special assignments for KMOX in St. Louis and had some experience on the radio for the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. But he had little experience with baseball, and it took a recommendation by legendary Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse to help land Matthews a job with the Royals.
Of course, the rest was history. Matthews would go on to broadcast the next 47 seasons of Royals baseball, call four World Series, including the final out of two championships. In 2007, he was honored with the Ford Frick Award, the highest honor bestowed upon broadcasters by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
"His voice has a pleasant timbre which suggests a cheerful occasion. His inflection varies naturally so it’s neither falsely enthusiastic nor boring. He has a dry, understanding humor that drifts through much of his audience undetected. One cannot learn these things at a microphone; they are given."
Bud and Denny were broadcast on 980 KMBZ in Kansas City and a network of 46 radio stations across the Midwest. For the few games that were shown on KMBC, Channel 9 in Kansas City, the radio broadcast was simulcast to TV. Blattner was very popular, and the pair was a success. By 1972, Royals games were airing on 11 television stations outside of Kansas City.
Bud Blattner and Denny Matthews, from the 1972 team yearbook
In 1973, the television rights were picked up by KBMA (now KSHB Channel 41), who paid $650,000 for the rights to air the Royals, the second-lowest amount paid for television rights in the American League and half of what the Yankees received in television broadcast fees. However, since the Royals developed their own broadcasts and pocketed the advertising revenue, they were able to make more profit as the team was more successful.
Source: The Sporting News
That year, the Royals also hired a Topeka sports director named Fred White to join the television booth. The 37-year old White had been known as the voice of Kansas State athletics while working at Topeka station WIBW. Following the 1975 season, Blattner decided to retire, turning things over on the radio side to Matthews and White. Fans were initially skeptical to White, but they would learn to love the pair that would stay together on the radio until 1998.
"I told people before, it's a long season and it's a small booth so you better get along. And I don't think either one of us was possessed of big egos. If you've got two guys and one of their egos is running free, then you might have a problem, but we never ran into that. I thought we respected each other and played off each other very well. We had a lot of fun times, a lot of laughs in the booth."
For an entire generation of Royals fans, it was Fred and Denny, Denny and Fred. While Denny was the cool teacher you admired who cracked jokes with his dry sense of humor, Fred was your favorite uncle, with his Midwestern twang and folksiness.
"My most vivid memories of listening to Denny and Fred come from the September pennant races. For whatever reason, it always seemed as though once school started and the bedtime regimen kicked in, the Royals went to California or Seattle with the division in the balance. These weren't some random game in Baltimore in April. These games were important. Vital. And Fred and Denny brought those moments to life."
The flagship radio station changed from KMBZ in Kansas City to WIBW in Topeka in 1974, although games still aired on KMBZ in Kansas City. With Blattner gone, the Royals tried out several television broadcasters the next few years - Gene Osborn (1975), Dick Carlson, Steve Shannon (1978-1979), and former Royals infielder Dave Nelson (1979).
In 1980, the television rights for the Royals were won by WDAF, Channel 4. The new rights-holder hired a new broadcast team, getting University of Kentucky broadcaster Denny Trease and former Angels and Los Angeles Rams broadcaster Al Wisk. The Royals and WDAF decided to let Wisk go after 1982, and fill the TV side with Trease and Fred White, pulling double-duty on both TV and radio.
In 1984, the Royals made the venture into cable, partnering with a new regional sports network called SportsTime that aired games for the Royals, Cardinals, Indians, and Reds, as well as St. Louis Blues hockey games. Phil Stone and Dwayne Mosley called 50 Royals games on the channel that was a joint-venture between Anheuser-Busch and cable company TCI, but the channel folded after just one year.
In 1988, longtime Royals pitcher Paul Splittorff joined Denny Trease on the television side, becoming a fixture on broadcasts for decades until he revealed he had oral cancer just before he died in 2011. Split was a welcome addition to telecasts, serving as a professor of pitching and educating fans on the finer points of the game.
Splitt remained the constant after the Royals parted ways with Denny Trease after the 1992 season. Dave Armstrong, a former Raycom sportscaster known for working college sports games with his trademark call of "wow!", was hired to partner with Splitt from 1993 to 1995. Former Royals pitcher Steve Busby left the Rangers, where he had worked as a broadcaster since 1982, to join the booth with the Royals in 1996, but that would last just one season. Former Royals catcher and manager John Wathan filled in during the 1996 and 1997 seasons. The Royals finally settled on University of Kansas broadcaster Bob Davis in 1997, and while he lasted on television until 2012, he was criticized for his overexuberance at mundane plays.
Even as late as the mid-90s, the Royals were only broadcasting about 50-60 games a year, only a handful of which were home games. Some teams still viewed telecasts as competition with ticket sales, so broadcasting home games was considered a death knell for attendance. Still, the increasing presence of cable was causing teams to buck the trend, and those clubs found that attendance was not hurt at all by putting games on TV. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Televised games were essentially a three-hour commercial for the product.
After the 1997 season, the Royals did the unthinkable - they broke up the team of Fred and Denny. Fred White was fired as the team looked for a younger sound - and a lower salary to pay.
"It bothers the hell out of me. But I’m not going to let it beat me up. It’s a tremendous letdown."
The Royals hired a much younger broadcaster from the Twins, Ryan Lefebvre. Ryan, the son of former big leaguer Jim Lefebvre, was from southern California with a brief stop to play baseball at what he called "the great academic institution of the University of Minnesota." In other words, he was a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner to Kansas Citians, and to many fans, the one that got Fred White fired. It would take many years for some fans to embrace him, but eventually his deadpan sarcasm and dry wit would gain greater acceptance, particularly after he revealed he had battled depression for many years.
By the 2000s, regional sports television networks had proliferated the sport, giving the bigger markets a powerful revenue source. The Royals tried to catch up, creating the Royals Sports Television Network (RSTN), however RSTN had trouble finding cable and satellite carriers, and eventually had to reach agreement with Fox Sports Midwest to carry its games. After the 2007 season, the Royals ended the venture, and reached agreement with Fox to create Fox Sports Kansas City, which carries Royals games to this day. Fox Sports Kansas City began broadcasts in high definition, and significantly increased the number of games broadcast to over 140.
KMBZ lost the radio rights to 810 WHB in 2004, following the first winning season in nearly a decade. But by 2008, Entercom, the parent company of KMBZ, reclaimed the rights, with most games airing on KCSP 610. The radio broadcast added former Reds broadcaster Steve Stewart that year while the television broadcast added its first sideline reporter in Joel Goldberg, who had cut his teeth working Cardinals and Blues games for Fox Sports Midwest. Fox Sports Kansas City also added Royals Hall of Fame second baseman Frank White to join the TV broadcast for the pre- and post-game show, filling in for Splittorff on occasion as color analyst.
White proved to be a very popular addition, but apparently the team did not appreciate his candor and critiques of the club. White, who had long had an acrimonious relationship with the organization since his days as a player and had been miffed at being passed over as manager, was dismissed as a broadcaster in 2011, after just four seasons. White was furious and took his grievances with the club public.
"I'm done with the Royals. I just can't do it."
Fans were equally upset at the club for axing the legend, and things were not soothed over when Fox Sports Kansas City brought in a pair of former Angels broadcasters, Rex Hudler and Steve Physioc. The eccentric Hudler had never played for the Royals, and his wacky California sense of humor did not play well with fans initially. Even Kansas-born Physioc, who had grown up a Royals fan, found acceptance among fans difficult due to his stiff delivery and frequent on-air gaffes.
Royals Hall of Fame reliever Jeff Montgomery joined the telecast in 2010 as part of the pre- and post-game show, also filling in as analyst on occasion. This addition gave the Royals the broadcast team they carry to this day, with Ryan Lefebvre and Rex Hudler primarily working television with Joel Goldberg and Jeff Montgomery, and Steve Physioc, Denny Matthews, and Steve Stewart primarily working radio with longtime producer/engineer Don Free, although sometimes Physioc and Lefebvre will alternate roles.
For almost five decades, the Royals have had a rich tradition of broadcasters calling games. The most memorable moments in franchise history, the highs and the lows, have been called by these men. Many of us have fond memories of sitting on the back porch with a transitor radio, listening to Denny and Fred, or having friends over to watch Splitt and Lefebvre. Radio and television has become a huge part of the game, and we have been fortunate in Kansas City to have had so many talented personalities to present the game to us.
Special thanks to "Calling the Game: Baseball Broadcasting from 1920 to the Present."