Larry Dierker used his fastball, curveball, screwball, slider, and changeup to reach double figures in victories nine times, and in 1969 became the first Astro to win 20. Coveted by 18 ML teams, the 6′ 4″ Hollywood, CA native signed with Houston and debuted on his 18th birthday in 1964. By 1969 Dierker had become the anchor of a staff that featured Don Wilson, Denny Lemaster, and Tom Griffin. Dierker, along with Jim Wynn, was one of the few highlights on a mediocre Astros squad.
His 1967 campaign was shortened by military service, and in 1973 he suffered a shoulder injury. On July 9, 1976 Dierker no-hit the Expos; the Montreal manager was Karl Kuehl, who had signed him. “I didn’t think I would ever do it,” exclaimed Dierker upon finally pitching a no-hitter after four near-misses. He left the Astros in 1976 as their career leader in virtually every pitching department.
Dierker remained close to the Astros organization after retiring in 1977. After two years spent working in the team’s front office, he was hired as the Astros’ radio and TV color commentator in 1979. In 1997 Dierker was named to replace Terry Collins (fired after a string of second-place finishes) as the team’s manager, leading the team to an 84-78 record and a spot in the postseason for the first time in eleven years. Although Dierker’s club was swept in three games by the NL East champion Atlanta Braves, it was an impressive showing for a rookie manager who’d never before skippered a team at any level.
The following season, the Astros held a comfortable lead in the NL Central in late July when they traded several minor league prospects to Seattle for dominating lefthander Randy Johnson. Propelled by Johnson’s 10-1 run as an Astro, Houston streaked to a club-record 102 wins and found themselves favored by many to reach the World Series. Their dreams of a pennant came to a sudden halt, however, when San Diego’s pitching staff shut down the hard-hitting Astros and defeated them three games to one in the Division Series. Dierker received some consolation after the season when he was named National League Manager of the Year.
Dierker’s popularity in Houston was never more evident than in June, 1999, when he collapsed with a grand mal seizure in the Astros dugout during a game with San Diego. The game was suspended as Dierker was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a dislodged collection of blood vessels in his brain. A month after his surgery, Dierker returned to the team and was greeted in his first game back by a sea of well-wishers; most of the Astrodome fans wore Hawaiian shirts (Dierker’s favored off-duty apparel) and leis in honor of their beloved skipper.