Larry Dierker was one of the most popular, personable and productive pitchers to play for the Astros. He was as smooth a fit for Houston as oil, aerospace and barbecue. Imagine then the shockwaves when he was traded to the Cardinals.
Seeking a veteran leader for their starting rotation with a proven record of delivering double-digit wins, the Cardinals acquired Dierker and infielder Jerry DaVanon from the Astros for catcher Joe Ferguson and outfielder Bob Detherage 40 years ago, on Nov. 23, 1976.
It appeared at the time to be a masterful move by Cardinals general manager Bing Devine.
Dierker, 30, had produced nine seasons with double-digit win totals for the Astros, including 1969 when he became the first Houston pitcher to earn 20 and 1976 when he had a no-hitter versus the Expos among his 13 wins.
When he joined the Cardinals, Dierker ranked fifth among active National League pitchers in career NL wins, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Only future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro had more.
“Every good pitching staff needs a stabilizer and I think he’ll help our staff,” Cardinals manager Vern Rapp said.
Dierker’s stay with the Cardinals, though, turned out to be short and unsatisfying.
Planning to enter the 1977 season with four starting pitchers ages 27 or younger _ Bob Forsch, John Denny, Eric Rasmussen and Pete Falcone _ the Cardinals sought a successful veteran to anchor the rotation.
The Astros also were flush with young starting pitchers such as Joaquin Andujar and Floyd Bannister. The Astros’ needs were a reliable catcher and a power hitter. Joe Ferguson could do both roles.
Ferguson (and Detherage) had been acquired by the Cardinals in the June 1976 trade that sent outfielder Reggie Smith to the Dodgers. The Cardinals, though, had Ted Simmons at catcher, making Ferguson expendable.
Though Ferguson had been a bust with the Cardinals, batting .201 with four home runs in 71 games, he had displayed power with the Dodgers, hitting 25 home runs in 1973 and 16 in 1974.
With other teams inquiring about Ferguson, the Astros offered Dierker to enhance their chances of making a deal.
“We feel he’s the best of all possible available acquisitions,” Astros general manager Tal Smith said to the Associated Press of Ferguson. “There were at least nine clubs in the market for a top-notch catcher and we feel fortunate to get him.”
Smith said he regretted having to deal Dierker, but told United Press International, “If we were going to fill a void, we had to satisfy the other club. In this case, the price was a real quality pitcher.”
Dierker had made his big-league debut with Houston on Sept. 22, 1964, his 18th birthday. Facing the Giants, he struck out Willie Mays in the first inning.
In 13 years (1964-76) with Houston, Dierker had a 137-117 record and 3.28 ERA. (In 2016, Dierker still is the Houston franchise leader in career innings pitched, games started, complete games and shutouts.)
Dierker, who never had played in the postseason with Houston, accepted his trade to the Cardinals, saying, “It seems kind of like a new beginning.”
“I’m still confident I can pitch and I’m not going to be afraid for my job until I know I can’t compete with the youngsters anymore,” Dierker said to The Sporting News. “… I like to feel the Cardinals are getting a pretty good pitcher.”
The high expectations for Dierker were set back on March 3, 1977, when he broke his left ankle while running wind sprints in the outfield at the Cardinals’ spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Dierker opened the 1977 season on the disabled list. In May, he began an injury rehabilitation program in St. Petersburg.
On May 22, 1977, Dierker made his Cardinals debut with a start against the Giants at St. Louis. He worked five innings, yielded two runs and took the loss. Boxscore
Placed in the rotation, Dierker was 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA after five starts. In June, he developed right shoulder problems.
The Cardinals asked Dierker to go to the minor leagues to work his arm into shape, but he turned down the request, according to The Sporting News.
After missing a start on July 12 at Philadelphia because of shoulder woes, Dierker was shelled in a start on July 16 at Montreal, yielding three runs and being lifted before completing the first inning. He didn’t appear in another game for the Cardinals until working an inning of relief on Oct. 1.
In an assessment of the 1977 Cardinals, Neal Russo of The Sporting News wrote that Dierker “was useless most of the season.”
Rapp said Dierker was someone “that you figured would win 15.”
Instead, Dierker had a 2-6 record and 4.58 ERA in 11 appearances for the 1977 Cardinals.
Dierker went to spring training with the 1978 Cardinals. He said he “was feeling great,” but he struggled with command of his pitches. In 17 exhibition game innings, Dierker yielded 21 hits and eight walks and posted a 4.76 ERA.
At the end of spring training, the Cardinals released Dierker, “a development he expected and accepted with grace,” according to Dick Kaegel in The Sporting News.
In February 1979, Dierker joined the Astros’ front office as director of community relations and ticket sales. He was an Astros broadcaster from 1979-96.
In 1997, Dierker replaced Terry Collins as Astros manager and led the club to four division titles in five seasons.