SABR

Mark Belanger

This article was written by Frank Vaccaro.

The most electrifying defensive shortstop of his generation, Mark Belanger set the standard by anchoring a great Baltimore Orioles infield for most of 14 seasons. During this stretch, Baltimore won 90 or more games 12 times with seven postseason appearances capped by the 1970 world championship. Belanger and Ozzie Smith are the only shortstops to retire with fielding averages over .975 while averaging more than five fielding chances per game.

Belanger used two tiny black gloves per season and broke them in with spit and coffee. He got upset if anybody touched them. Watching him have a catch with a teammate on the sidelines was striking. He never seemed to actually catch a ball; rather he redirected them into his throwing hand. Sports Illustrated once wrote: “Belanger would glide effortlessly after a grounder and welcome it into loving arms; scooping the ball up with a single easy motion, and bringing it to his chest for a moment’s caress before making his throw.”1

Belanger’s fielding prowess was due to the start-and-stop speed of an All-American high school basketball star, his lightning-quick hands, and what scouts called Belanger’s First Step. A student of pitch counts, locations, and batter tendencies, Belanger sprinted at odd angles for the big hop and is best appreciated in slow-motion video. His small glove transferred the ball to his right hand – the seams of the ball always aligned the same way – enabling him to uncoil a strong throw on his next left step. In 18 years, he never dove for a ball, insisting that an all-out sprint was faster and maintained the mechanics of the play. And he was supremely confident: He never wore a protective cup.

Belanger’s father, Edward, was of French-Canadian descent and worked as a maintenance man in Cheshire, a town in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. His mother, Marie, was a first- generation Italian-American. Mark, the third of four children (he had an older brother, Al, and two sisters, Jeanne and Linda), learned how to field playing with his siblings on a cow pasture. Born on June 8, 1944, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he played basketball and baseball at Pittsfield High School. On the hardwood, he was a 6-foot-2 forward who jumped center, compiling 1,455 points in three years a school record until 2003. In baseball, he starred for both the high school squad and the local American Legion Post 68 team. On August 24, 1960, Belanger ripped a 14th-inning 340-foot game-winning double off the left-field fence at Alumni Field in Keene, New Hampshire, to earn Pittsfield Post a trip to Hastings, Nebraska, for the American Legion national championship. Scouts for the Orioles noted that Belanger “looks like he’s playing on roller skates to the accompaniment of music.”2 Based on scout Joe Cusick’s reports, after Belanger graduated from high school Baltimore offered him $35,000 to sign a contract. Belanger signed on June 19. That summer he played in 47 games for the Bluefield Orioles in the short-season Appalachian League and eight games with the Single-A Elmira Pioneers of the Eastern League. He hit .298 for Bluefield but was just 1-for-22 at Elmira.

Belanger went to spring training with the Orioles in 1963. Ron Hansen, whom the Orioles had just traded to the Chicago White Sox, approached the rookie with this advice: “Learn to rock forward as the pitcher delivers the ball instead of starting from zero.”3 Belanger took it to heart. Over the years he not only leaned forward but anticipated left or right based on batter tendencies and pitch location. Sometimes Belanger would break right and then correct himself and break left – all before the crack of the bat on the ball. Before the 1963 season began, Belanger entered the US Air National Guard for a year of active duty, completing his basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and playing on the camp baseball squad. Returning the next season with the Northern League’s Aberdeen (South Dakota) Pheasants, he hit just .226 but one scouting report enthused about his fielding: “Belanger could be a major-league shortstop if he never got another hit in his life.”4 He was far from perfect on the field, having made 20 errors in 44 games with Bluefield in 1962 and 23 errors with Aberdeen in 117 games in 1964, but talent evaluators had no doubt as to the shortstop’s potential.

Belanger played for Earl Weaver at three levels along the way, and Weaver told him, “You're my shortstop if you hit .0001.”5 In midseason 1965, Belanger’s year at Elmira was interrupted by his first call-up to the majors when Luis Aparicio caught the mumps. In Kansas City, a gaggle of sportswriters converged on batting practice to find out who Belanger was. A’s coach Whitey Herzog said: “I saw him play in the Northern League. During the seven games I watched him, Belanger was the best shortstop I ever saw in my life.”6

Belanger debuted as a pinch-runner on August 7. In Fenway Park on August 10 he fielded his first ground ball. It came off the bat of Felix Mantilla, and Belanger started a double play with the graceful second baseman Jerry Adair. Belanger appeared in 11 games, but had only three at-bats, with one hit, a single off Kansas City’s Don Mossi on September 10.

Listed as “needs hitting experience” in the spring of 19667, Belanger was one of five Elmira regulars who followed Earl Weaver to Triple-A Rochester. Belanger did not hit well in the first half and, feeling the pressure to succeed, began smoking cigarettes. Belanger asked Weaver to bench him but Weaver refused and Belanger responded by out-hitting league MVP Mike Epstein the second half, finishing at .262 for the season. The Rochester press called him Remarkable Mark. Called up at the end of the year, he appeared in just eight more games, but was there to join in the wild celebration when Baltimore clinched the pennant on September 22.

Called “the greatest shortstop prospect in baseball history,”8 Belanger drew offers from many clubs but General Manager Harry Dalton was adamant: “I will never trade Belanger.”9 Playing behind Aparicio, a seven-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner in his career thus far, Belanger showed uneven play in his rookie year of 1967. On April 30 he dropped Aparicio’s feed as a second baseman and allowed an unearned run to score to give Steve Barber a loss in what ended as a no-hit game. (Barber threw 8 2/3 no-hit innings and Stu Miller 1/3 in the loss.) The Orioles’ manager, Hank Bauer, still said Belanger “sparkled”10 and Bauer liked the fact that Belanger hit well when given consecutive starts. Aparicio had an off-year and Belanger became his late-inning replacement. In the same May 14 game in which Mickey Mantle hit his 500th home run, Belanger hit one off Yankee Stadium’s left-field pole, victimizing the Yankees’ Mel Stottlemyre.

Belanger married the former Daryl Apple on November 25, 1967, and the couple honeymooned at Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos. On their fourth night together, Belanger heard the news that Baltimore had traded Aparicio to the White Sox, opening up the shortstop job. Back home in Pittsfield, Belanger was employed selling sporting goods in the Besse-Clarke department store. To get ready for the season, he squeezed lacrosse balls to build up his wrists.

Belanger almost saw his season derailed when the Air National Guard ordered him to report to the 175th Fighter Group at Middle River, Maryland, just before the season. He missed Baltimore’s Opening Day, but joined the squad in time for the first Opening Day ever in Oakland, California, to which the Athletics had moved from Kansas City. California Governor Ronald Reagan threw out the first pitch in front of 50,000 fans and Belanger hit his second career home run. On July 10, Hank Bauer was deposed as O’s manager in favor of first-base coach Earl Weaver, who said, “Mark can be a star. A fifty-thousand-dollar player.”11 Perhaps, but he hit just .208 in his first year as a starting player.

The next spring bullpen coach Charlie Lau approached Belanger to offer batting tips. Lau kept track of every pitch Belanger saw that year, sending him up to bat with instructions to take and swing on specific counts, and encouraging him to expect certain pitches in certain spots based on previous batter-pitcher matchups. Belanger responded with his best batting season ever, won his first of eight Gold Gloves, and earned the nickname Blade for his silhouette as Baltimore rolled to a team record 109 wins. He hit for a .287 average with 50 RBIs.

Belanger became a respected member of the team, offering an articulate clubhouse interview and buffering Earl Weaver’s rants. Between the foul lines he was no-joke, all business, directing fielders to shade right or left and approaching rookies and new players with the abrupt “We don’t do it that way” – a line he even used on Jim Palmer in 1978.12 Backed by veterans Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson, Belanger became a leader on the team, replacing Davey Johnson as assistant player representative. Even in the loose clubhouse atmosphere after wins, Belanger elevated small talk into something relevant without being called a clubhouse lawyer. Late after games, Belanger was still in his canvas chair by his locker talking baseball through a haze of Marlboro cigarette smoke and sips of National Bohemian beer. When the team’s mock “Kangaroo Court” was in session, Belanger was often fined one dollar for ludicrous imperfections, to which he would exclaim: “I appeal!”

Detroit manager Mayo Smith declared that trying to get a hit through the left side of the Baltimore infield was like “trying to throw a hamburger through a brick wall.”13 But in the 1969 World Series the New York Mets did just that, rolling seeing-eye hits between Mark and Brooks – back-to-back no less – in the top of the ninth inning of Game Two en route to a five-game upset. When left fielder Don Buford lost Jerry Grote’s double in the sun in the 10th inning of Game Four, and Belanger almost caught the ball, color commentator Lou Boudreau said he “never saw a shortstop go that far.”14 Broadcaster Tony Kubek called him a fourth outfielder.15

In 1970 Charlie Lau signed with Oakland, and Belanger jammed his thumb in March. He was described as lost at the plate, batting “all-arm”16 without a clue. He developed “projection room eyes”17 from looking at so much film, but all he got for it was a .218 average and a mountain of broken bats. He did hit .333 in the American League Championship Series – in the opener against Minnesota, Belanger’s soft liner off pitcher Jim Perry’s glove was called the turning point, loading the bases for Mike Cuellar’s fourth-inning grand slam. Belanger hit just .105 in the World Series, but celebrated the Orioles’ victory anyway. The next year he rebounded to a more respectable .266 and captured his second Gold Glove.

In 1972 Weaver gave a lot of middle-infield at bats to newcomer Bobby Grich, causing Belanger’s playing time to be cut in half (he hit just .186) and Baltimore suffered its worst record during Belanger’s career. After the season the Orioles traded away second baseman Davey Johnson and installed Grich there, giving Belanger his full-time job back. The next two seasons were remarkably similar for Belanger and the Orioles. He hit .226 and .225 and captured a Gold Glove award after each season. The Orioles had second-half surges each season to come from behind to win the division title, before dropping the League Championship Series to the Athletics each season.

The tradeoff between Belanger’s lousy offense and great defense was usually one Weaver was willing to make, but he was not above trying to gain an edge. In September of 1975, Weaver often used Royle Stillman as the shortstop high in the starting lineup in road games, allowing rookie Stillman to bat in the first inning and Belanger to replace him in the bottom of the first. Stillman was an outfielder, and never played an inning of shortstop in his career, despite his six “starts” there in 1975. He hit 3-for-6 in these games.

Belanger holds the American League career record for being pinch-hit for – 333 times. And if he wasn’t being pinch-hit for, he was sacrificing; his league-leading 23 sacrifices in 1975 were an Oriole record at least through 2009. In 1976, Belanger carried a .300 average into June and earned over a million votes in the All-Star balloting, making the team as a backup. When Peter Gammons wrote, “Belanger could be the first 140 lb. weakling to win the MVP award,”18 Belanger sought him out at Fenway Park and confronted him: “I’m 170 pounds, and I’m not a weakling.”19 The next year, writing for Sports Illustrated, Gammons called Belanger “the leader of the club.”20 One of the last players to represent himself and not use an agent, Belanger signed after 1976 for $60,000, a contract that was later extended through the end of the 1981 season.

On July 28, 1977, even though he was going for his 50th consecutive errorless game, he was benched by Weaver and watched his replacement, Kiko Garcia, drop a first-inning pop-up that led to a big loss. Belanger’s streak ended on August 20 at 62 games, 48 of them starts. When the team contended in late September, the Baltimore Sun called Belanger the “blood and guts of the team.”21 But Belanger went beyond the established bounds of team leadership. He and his wife, Daryl “Dee” Belanger, hosted teammates for baseball talk and home cooking at his Timonium, Maryland, and Key Biscayne, Florida, residences. Pitcher Steve Stone credited one such evening with making him feel welcome with the team and for his subsequent 1979 success. In 1975 Mark and Dee even suggested that the Orioles play John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during the seventh-inning stretch, the start of a tradition that has spread today to many sports in many cities.

Belanger spent countless hours tutoring young infielders Doug DeCinces, Rich Dauer, Kiko Garcia, and Billy Smith, and the rookies helped him set the Baltimore record for double plays in 1977. When second baseman Dauer set a record by playing in 74 consecutive games without an error, he thanked Belanger. “He taught me how to play every hitter ... and taught me our pitching staff,” Dauer said.22 Belanger tapped his heart, as he did for so many players he liked: “He’s got it here,” he said.23

In 1980, a two-error game in July was noted to be his first in six years, and major-league shortstops surveyed by Sport magazine voted Belanger the best at the position. On September 4, 1981, Weaver benched Belanger, batting .165, for Lenny Sakata amid a team batting slump. Belanger, complaining about a sore shoulder, never started again. Sakata popped a grand slam two days later, coming out twice for curtain calls, and Weaver chortled, “He’s been keeping rallies going for us since he’s been in there,”24 a remark poignant for the punchless Belanger, who wasn’t even subbing in the late innings any more. Belanger’s last game with the Orioles was on October 4, but he asked Weaver not to play him, saying, “I haven’t been playing, and I’m not sharp.”25 Public-address announcer Rex Barney thanked Belanger in the top of the eighth inning for the privilege of watching him play. Applause built until Belanger appeared on the top step of the dugout and tipped his cap, an act that only made the stadium roar, delaying the game. Belanger added criticisms of Weaver that forced the Orioles’ hand in releasing him on November 13. Reflecting on the Orioles without Belanger, catcher Rick Dempsey said, “I feel like we lost half the club.”26

Belanger signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $250,000 on December 11, 1981, to play one last season. Along with his utility-infielder duties, he handed lineup cards to umpires and pitched batting practice. Walking by manager Tommy Lasorda’s office in March, Belanger cringed when Lasorda yelled out: “Belanger!” Expecting Weaver-like browbeating, Belanger entered the office only to be told Lasorda wanted a hug.27 He got a key hit in a Dodgers win on July 31, and walked twice in a final start against fireballer Nolan Ryan. The last grounder he fielded was from Tony Gwynn on September 21.

For many, the close of Mark Belanger’s playing days only heralded the beginnings of his real contributions to baseball. The assistant player representative for Baltimore since 1971, Belanger rose to player representative in 1977 when Brooks Robinson retired and took pains to make sure Donald Fehr, then the chief counsel of the Major League Players Association, understood the rank-and-file’s concerns. Belanger was tested as the players’ front man in the 50-day strike of 1981 and fought for bargaining benefits that he himself would probably never collect. Belanger’s pro-union stance contrasted with that of big earners like Reggie Jackson, who seemed ready to cave in

Upon Belanger’s retirement, player reps demanded that a spot be created for him right under Ken Moffett, the executive director of the players union. Belanger turned down a lucrative offer from Personal Management Associates, a Baltimore player agency headed by Ron Shapiro, and became a tireless “special assistant” to Moffett and later Don Fehr

The partnership with Fehr was fruitful. Belanger brought credibility to executive-board sessions, and acted as Fehr’s personal bellwether for player opinion. Fehr himself claimed he didn’t feel comfortable in the job until 1986. Until then Belanger stood behind him at nearly every public appearance: arms folded, repeating key words, and interrupting Fehr’s legalese at least once with: “Don. You lost them.”28 Eventually Belanger’s own earnings topped $400,000 annually, yet he still took a personal interest in nearly every player grievance that came across his desk, helping the union move to Midtown Manhattan and to computerize member data. Still making time to play golf with his brother, Al, at the Berkshire Hills Country Club on Saturday mornings, Belanger saw the median major-league salary top $1,000,000 in 1992.

A skiing accident at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, early in January 1997 led to lingering discomfort and a diagnosis of lung cancer that April. Belanger, who had quit smoking in 1991, took the challenge in an upbeat, optimistic mood. He married his second wife, Virginia French, three months later, and worked for the MLPA while an outpatient until he died shortly after the 1998 regular season ended, on October 6, at the age of 54. Besides his wife, he was survived by two sons, Richard and Robert.

 

Sources

Ken Nigro, Baltimore Sun beat writer, 1969-1978, and TSN correspondent 1977-1979, interview.

Jim Henneman, TSN Baltimore correspondent, 1976-1978, interview.

Ed Belanger, brother, interview.

 

Notes

1 Pat Jordan, “Years Ahead of his Time,” Sports Illustrated, July 29, 1974, 44.

2 Doug Brown, “Belanger Army Call Could Help Birds,” The Sporting News, March 16, 1963, 69.

3 Baseball Digest, September 1980, 84.

4 Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1965, A2.

5 The Sporting News, March 25, 1967, 9.

6 Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1965, A2.

7 Baseball Digest, March, 1967, 17.

8 The Sporting News, February, 25, 1967, 10.

9 The Sporting News, February, 25, 1967.

10 Baltimore Sun, March 1, 1967, C4.

11 The Sporting News, Sept. 21, 1968, 11

12 Baltimore Sun, Sept. 20, 1978, C7

13 Baseball Weekly, June 30, 1993, 71.

14 Chicago Tribune, October 16, 1969.

15 Baseball Digest, August 1988, 20.

16 Baseball Digest, December 1971, 71.

17 The Sporting News, August 22, 1970, 10.

18 Wall Street Journal, July 2, 1976, 1.

19 Wall Street Journal, July 2, 1976, 1.

20 Sports Illustrated, Sept. 26, 1977, 62.

21 Baltimore Sun, October 2, 1977, C12.

22 The Sporting News, Sept. 30, 1978, 9.

23 The Sporting News, September 6, 1980, 28.

24 Baltimore Sun, Sept. 20, 1981.

25 Baltimore Sun, October 1, 1981.

26 Baltimore Sun, October 5, 1981, C1.

27 Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1982.

28 Sports Illustrated, March 8, 1993.

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