Belanger in 1977
|Born: June 8, 1944|
|Died: October 6, 1998 (aged 54)|
New York, New York
|August 7, 1965, for the Baltimore Orioles|
|Last MLB appearance|
|October 2, 1982, for the Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Runs batted in||389|
|Career highlights and awards|
Mark Henry Belanger (June 8, 1944 - October 6, 1998), nicknamed "The Blade," was an American professional baseball player and coach. He played 18 seasons in Major League Baseball as a shortstop from 1965 through 1982, most notably as a member of the Baltimore Orioles dynasty that won four American League pennants and two World Series championships between 1966 and 1971.
A defensive standout, Belanger won eight Gold Glove Awards between 1969 and 1978, leading the American League in assists and fielding percentage three times each; he retired with the highest career fielding average by an AL shortstop (.977). Belanger set franchise records for career games, assists, and double plays as a shortstop, all of which were later broken by Cal Ripken Jr. After his playing career, he became an official with the Major League Baseball Players Association. In 1983, Belanger was inducted into the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame.
Belanger was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and attended Pittsfield High School, where he played baseball and basketball. On the basketball court, he became the school's first 1,000-point scorer. He was recruited by the Orioles as an amateur in 1962 and made his debut with the club on August 7, 1965.
Belanger took over as the Orioles' regular shortstop in late 1967 and held the position for more than a decade. He hit his first Major League home run at Yankee Stadium on May 14, 1967, off Yankees' ace (and later pitching coach) Mel Stottlemyre. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle would hit his 500th career home run in that same game. Belanger was nicknamed "The Blade" because of his tall and narrow frame--6'1" (1.85 m) and 170 pounds (77 kg). Despite his reputation as one of the best fielding shortstops in Major League history, Belanger was known as a poor hitter. In 1970, he was a Triple Crown loser (finishing last in the Triple Crown categories). In his 18 seasons in the Major Leagues, Belanger hit only 20 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .228, only topping the .230 mark over a full season three times. His .228 lifetime batting average is the third-lowest of any Major League player with more than 5,000 career at bats, ahead of only George McBride (.218) and Ed Brinkman (.224). Belanger also finished his career with the seventh-lowest batting average of any non-catcher with at least 2,500 at bats since 1920.
Belanger was a flashy fielder and won eight AL Gold Gloves (1969, 1971, and 1973-78). He was also named to the All-Star team in 1976. Belanger joined a select group of shortstop-second baseman combinations who each won Gold Gloves in the same season while playing together (in 1969 and 1971 with Davey Johnson and again with Bobby Grich each year between 1973 and 1976). Because Brooks Robinson won the AL Gold Glove at third base each season during the 1960-1975 stretch, the left side of the Orioles' infield was seemingly impenetrable.
He hit a rare home run in the first American League Championship Series game ever played in 1969, and after uncharacteristically hitting .333 in the 1970 ALCS, his contributions led to the Orioles' 1970 World Series victory, the team's second title in five years. During the series, he caught a line drive to end a 4-3 victory in Game 1 with the tying run on first base, and he had an assist to end Game 3. Belanger played in six ALCS series and set league playoff records for career games, putouts, assists, total chances, and double plays by a shortstop. (All these records were broken between 1998 and 2002 by Omar Vizquel and Derek Jeter.)
Belanger was granted free agency in 1981--perhaps in response to his public criticism of manager Earl Weaver--and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 1982 season; he retired at the end of the season.
Following Belanger's departure from the Orioles, former teammate Rich Dauer said, "Anyone would miss Mark Belanger. You're talking about the greatest shortstop in the world. He never put you in a bad position with his double-play throws...He'd put you where you should be to make the play... I never had to think out there. If there was any question in my mind, I'd look at Blade, and he'd have a finger out, pointing which way I should move."
Belanger served as the Orioles' union representative for several years. He was one of the four players who led negotiations during the 1981 strike.
After Belanger's retirement as an active player (and until his death), he was employed by the MLB Players Association as a liaison to its membership.
Belanger and his first wife, Daryl, had two homes--in Timonium, Maryland and Key Biscayne, Florida--and had two sons, Richard and Robert. He married his second wife, Virginia French, in early 1997, who survives him.
A long-time cigarette smoker, Belanger contracted lung cancer in the late 1990s and died in New York City at the age of 54. He was survived by his second wife, Virginia, sons Richard and Robert, his parents, and three siblings. He is interred in St. Joseph Cemetery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Belanger's son, Robert John Belanger (born 1969) died as a result of prostate cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson, Maryland, on December 30, 2016. He was 47. Robert Belanger was a musician, softball coach, church volunteer, sales assistant in an investment management firm, and co-founder of a charity that helped pediatric oncology patients.