A Houston Astros fan hungering for baseball trivia tunes in to KTRH and savors color commentator Larry Dierker’s tidbits on his “This Day in Baseball” pregame segment.
It’s an irresistible appetizer, something to wet the whistle of a fan who subsists on a steady diet of ballgames.
Casey Stengel’s first championship team? Last New York Yankee to hit 40 home runs? First reliever to record 30 saves?
Dierker provides the answers.
First man to pitch in the Astrodome? The bonus baby from Taft High who on his 18th birthday struck out Willie Mays? Veteran with a torn rotator cuff who threw a no-hitter in 1976?
Dierker is the answer.
He has been an Astro icon for more than a quarter-century, the team’s finest pitcher during the early years and its radio and television analyst through the ‘80s. “I’m doing exactly what I want,” Dierker said this week while Houston was in Los Angeles to play the Dodgers.
Seems he always has.
Dierker ambled onto the Houston Colt .45s in 1964 as an unsure young gun, a 6-foot-4, 17-year-old greenhorn. He learned fast, however, and soon found himself in a short marriage to a Miss Texas and a long love affair with Houston fans.
“Larry came to the old Colt .45s in a youth movement that included guys like Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub,” said Bill Wood, the Astro general manager. “He symbolized the hopes of the fans here. And he’s been in the trenches slugging it out ever since. He really found a niche in broadcasting. He’s very popular.”
The strapping Dierker, 44, seems as much made for Texas as John Wayne was for Hollywood.
Yet it is Dierker who was born in Hollywood. His family settled in Reseda, and Dierker, along with his brother, Rick, and sister, Laura Lynn, was raised in the rural San Fernando Valley of the 1950s. When Larry reached the seventh grade, the Dierkers moved to a ranch-style house in Woodland Hills, a hardball’s throw from the Ventura Freeway. Dierker’s parents, Charles and Marilynn, live there still.
After honing his skills in the West Valley Little League, Dierker tried out for the Taft varsity as a 10th-grader in 1962.
“I asked him to throw me some pitches,” recalled Ray O’Connor, the Taft coach at the time. “He threw three and I told him that’s all I had to see. I said to my wife that night that this kid would be the first major league pitcher I’ve ever coached.”
This was long before speed guns were lugged out to high school fields, but there was no mistaking Dierker’s velocity.
“He threw so hard, high school hitters wouldn’t swing and umpires wouldn’t call strikes,” O’Connor said.
Dierker never quite mastered high school baseball. “I made it harder than it was,” he said. Dierker was 4-6 his senior year and was left off the All-West Valley League team.
One afternoon he was shelled by eventual City Section champion Birmingham while being evaluated by a Dodger scout named Tommy Lasorda.
“He got knocked around pretty good,” Lasorda said. “But I didn’t file a bad report. You could see he had the mechanics and arm action. You could see he was going to be a helluva pitcher.”
The Colt .45s, an expansion team formed in 1962, certainly believed so. They and the Cubs were the finalists in a bidding war that began with 17 of the 20 major league teams. There was no amateur draft in 1964 and a prospect was allowed to sign with the highest bidder.
“The Cubs’ top offer was $35,000 but Houston kept calling back and raising their offer,” Dierker said. “They must have believed the Cubs were still bidding.”
Dierker eventually signed with Houston for a $55,000 bonus, but not before being evaluated by Astro Manager Harry Craft one afternoon at Taft. Dierker and Craft began playing catch. After a few tosses, Craft surprised Dierker by throwing a knuckleball. Several tosses later, Dierker unleashed a forkball that glanced off Craft’s glove and grazed his cheek. “Tell me when you’re gonna throw something like that,” Craft growled. Dierker shrugged and replied, “You didn’t warn me when you threw that knuckleball.”
Dierker had a lot of nerve, which came in handy later that summer when he was called up to Houston after dominating a Florida instructional league for 10 weeks. “There were better players in the West Valley League than in the instructional league,” Dierker recalled.
General Manager Paul Richards, not one to overlook an attendance-boosting publicity stunt, scheduled Dierker to make his first major league appearance Sept. 22, on his 18th birthday.
“On game day, there were TV cameras in my hotel room and a big birthday cake in the clubhouse,” Dierker said. “I was so nervous by game time that I don’t remember much of the details. I just recall it being such a momentous occasion.”
Harvey Kuenn led off the first inning for the San Francisco Giants and walked on four pitches. The next batter also reached base, bringing up Willie Mays. Dierker ran the count to 3-2 then froze Mays with a slider that was called strike three.
“He was bailing out,” Dierker recalled. “I’d already sailed a couple balls over Kuenn’s head and Mays didn’t dig in. If I’d have thrown him that pitch a couple years later he’d have hit it a mile.”
Mays led the National League with 47 home runs that year. Frank Howard was the Dodgers’ top home run hitter with 24, and he couldn’t touch Dierker either. On the last day of the season at Dodger Stadium, Dierker pitched five shutout innings of relief. He struck out Howard twice.
After the game, reporters clamored around the youngster’s locker, asking how he’d pitched to Howard. “My brother suggested that I throw him breaking balls low and away,” Dierker said.
“How old is your brother?” a writer asked. “He’s 14,” Dierker replied.
During the off-season, Dierker attended Pierce College, which is within walking distance of his parents’ home.
The following year the Colt .45s changed their name to the Astros and moved into the brand new Astrodome. The lights were turned on for the players the night they returned to Houston from spring training.
“It was absolutely breathtaking. It was a trip into the next century,” Dierker recalled. “It took my breath away as an 18-year-old kid, but I could see the veterans were affected the same way.”
The Astros played an exhibition game against Houston’s triple-A affiliate the next day and Dierker started. “I gave up a lot of runs. No one could catch a pop fly because of this tremendous glare off the ceiling,” Dierker said. Before opening day, management had the ceiling coated with a substance to reduce the glare.
Nothing could conceal the poor play of the Astros, however. The team did not finish better than eighth in the 10-team National League until 1969, when Dierker became Houston’s first 20-game winner. He was 20-13 with a 2.33 earned-run average and Houston finished at .500 (81-81) and in fifth place.
Although only 23, Dierker was a veteran of six major league seasons by 1970. He also knew his way around off the field, as did many of the fun-loving Astros.
“Larry started out real shy,” recalls B. J. Bowman, who has worked in the Houston organization since 1963, “but he got with the crew of crazies we had and became real aggressive, on and off the field.”
Losing kept the atmosphere loose in the Astrodome.
“We were down in the standings and the veterans knew we weren’t going anywhere,” Dierker recalled. “Also, the game was different then. You’d play a few years, make some money, then go out and get a job.
“It wasn’t like if you did one crazy thing, you wouldn’t be forgiven and blow your chance at making a million dollars. There was a lot more clowning.”
Dierker, who holds Astro records for career starts (320), innings pitched (2,295) and complete games (106), continued to rack up solid seasons. From 1969-72, he was 63-39 for teams that only once finished above .500.
The innings took their toll, and Dierker missed most of the ’73 season with a shoulder injury. Although he won 38 games for the Astros over the next three years, he never fully recovered.
“I limped along with a bad shoulder throwing sidearm,” he said. “They didn’t call it rotator cuff back then, but that’s what it was.”
The magic returned July 9, 1976, when Dierker pitched a no-hitter against the Montreal Expos in the Astrodome.
“Dirk really pitched that night,” Bowman recalled. “It was near the end for him, and his arm was about to fall off.”
Dierker finished his career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1977, retiring after 14 seasons at the age of 30 having won 139 games.
Since then, he has broadcast in excess of 2,000 games. “It’s interesting. Most Houston fans identify me more with broadcasting than they do with pitching,” Dierker said.
Wood gives Dierker high marks for his commentary.
“I find him to be quite entertaining,” he said. “Larry’s baseball insight is good. He was a student of the game as a pitcher and brings that to bear now in the broadcast booth.”
Dierker, who lives in Houston with his wife, Judy, and two children, also writes a weekly guest column for the Houston Chronicle. One piece looked back on his days in the West Valley Little League. Dierker wrote, “As a 12-year-old, I started riding my bike to the games, with my trappers glove hanging from the handlebars. I pedalled through several neighborhoods of new tract homes and then down a country road to the park. It was an easy trip--not dangerous.”
The startling growth of the Valley depresses Dierker, who stays with his parents when the Astros visit Los Angeles.
“You tend to romanticize about your youth, but I can’t help but think the Valley was a better place to grow up then,” he said. “Taft was a real campus setting. Now it’s full of trash and graffiti. It’s all pavement and concrete.”
Yet Dierker understands progress; his playing career was spent on baseball’s first artificial surface. And he is able to satisfy his longing for open space the same way every day--he just heads for the ballpark.