The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Week for April is a former Major League shortstop who was never known for his offensive production, but was one of the best ever at fielding his position and was a key reason that his team was baseball’s best during his era.
Mark Belanger was such a valuable player for the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1960s and 1970s that he knocked a future Hall of Famer out of the Baltimore lineup and twice finished in the top 30 in the American League MVP despite hitting below .230 for the season.
Standing 6-foot-1 and barreling tipping the scales at 170 pounds, Belanger was known as “The Blade.”
After seeing limited duty over parts of three seasons, Belanger became the starting shortstop when the Orioles traded future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio to the Chicago White Sox for Don Buford following the 1967 season.
In his first season as the starter, Belanger struggled offensively with a .208 batting average, but began to establish himself as a great defensive shortstop.
The following season, he had what would end up being the best offensive season of his career with career-high totals of a .287 batting average, 50 RBI and 76 runs scored. He claimed his first Gold Glove and finished 29th in the voting for the American League MVP.
Belanger again won the Gold Glove in 1971 and beginning in 1973 claimed the award for six straight years.
In 1973 he finished 21st in the AL MVP balloting despite hitting .226 with no home runs and 27 RBI. The following season, he was 26th in the voting while hitting .225 with five home runs and 36 RBI.
In 1976, Belanger was selected to the All-Star team for the only time in his career and hit .270 with a career-high 27 stolen bases.
He remained the regular shortstop for the Orioles through the 1978 season.
In 1979 he shared duties with Kiko Garcia as the Orioles reached the World Series for the first time since 1971.
Belanger’s final season in Baltimore was 1981 and he completed his career with a season playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
His career offensive statistics were quite pedestrian with a .228 batting average, 1,316 hits, 20 home runs and 389 RBI in 2,016 career games. However, his .977 career fielding percentage was tops among American League shortstops at the time of his retirement. Also, among shortstops only Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel and Luis Aparicio exceeded his total of eight Gold Gloves.
Belanger passed away following a battle with lung cancer in 1998.