'Who else could it be?': Mark Belanger is No. 1 on The Eagle's list of Berkshire County's Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century

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PITTSFIELD — The wait is over. Brian Sullivan's original list of Berkshire County's Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century has reached its conclusion. The No. 1 athlete on The Eagle's list is Pittsfield's Mark Belanger, a World Series champion with the Baltimore Orioles that played 18 seasons in the majors. But while many know "The Blade" as a Gold Glove-winning shortstop for the Orioles, Belanger's story isn't confined to the diamond. In fact, there is a case to be made that Belanger's best sport at Pittsfield High was basketball. These reasons, and many more, earned Belanger the top spot on The Eagle's list. Here's our story on Belanger's legendary career.

Prologue: What might have been

Inside the Boston Garden that night, the cigarette smoke sat over the basketball court like a thick, grey fog. Cheerleaders cavorted on the sidelines, and players rushed up and down the court.

It was March 19, 1962. That night, the quarterfinals of the New England schoolboy basketball championships took over the parquet floor. Pittsfield High School, the champion of Western Massachusetts, faced off against Hartford Public, the Connecticut state champion.

The place was packed. Hartford was the defending champion of this tournament. Pittsfield was making its first appearance. The consensus? The kids from the Berkshires didn't have a chance.

But no one told them. They were smaller and, for the most part, slower than their Connecticut rivals. And Hartford was led by All-American Eddie Griffin Jr., one of the most talented players in the country. Griffin had already set a school scoring record by dropping 70 points during a game in the regular season, long before the advent of the three-point basket. Scouts from all over the country were eager to see the 5-foot, 11-inch Griffin in action.

But over the course of the game that night, there was another player who caught their eye: He was a 6-2, thin, dark-haired drink of water playing for Pittsfield. Number 11 in the program that night.

Mark Belanger.

Griffin was undoubtedly the most explosive player on the floor. But this Belanger kid. There was something about him. He played forward for the most part, but he jumped center — winning the tap all four times against his taller counterpart from Hartford. He could rebound, he could handle the ball and he could shoot. That night, he did everything but sell popcorn at halftime.

Belanger scored 32 points, including going 14 for 14 from the free throw line and added a team-high 11 rebounds. He matched Griffin, who had 32 of his own. But Hartford had more weapons and would win the game, 78-65. Still, a few scouts cornered Eagle Sports Editor Roger O'Gara after the game.

"Where's the kid going?" they all asked. Meaning, of course, has he committed to a college to play basketball?

O'Gara probably would have loved to expound on Belanger's decision. But at that point, he hadn't made one. UConn had an "in," as older brother Al had gone there. But the Big Leagues also called. He might, said O'Gara, end up playing baseball.

There was, reportedly, a collective "humph."

Too bad.

The kid was clearly a good ballplayer.

Part I: The kid from Lanesborough

Ironically, what might have been almost might have been at another school

"We grew up in the Farnams district of Cheshire," recalled Allen "Al" Belanger, older brother of Mark. "My father worked at the old U.S. Gypsum Co. [Adams High and MLB star] Dale Long's father was his boss. My brother and I both went to Cheshire School; Mark till he was seven and me till I was 12."

The family then moved to Lanesborough. The Belangers enrolled their kids in the Pittsfield school system. Mark ended up at North Junior High, instead of C.T. Plunkett in Adams. Such is fate.

He wasn't dominant in junior high. He wasn't, in fact, even a shortstop.

"He pitched," said Al. "When he didn't pitch, he played center field. It wasn't until he got to Pittsfield High that he played shortstop."

That was 1960. The Generals had a veteran squad, a team that would, in fact, win the state championship. There were not a lot of positions open. Actually, there was only one opening — shortstop. Belanger and his best friend, Dick Premerlani, both tried out for it.

"It was March," recalled Premerlani. "There was snow on the ground, so the tryouts were in the gym. Mark and I were fielding grounders on that hard floor."

The two had known each other since both were eight or so.

"We met in a gym," said Premerlani. "We both played sports. We got along pretty well right away."

In the end, Belanger won the position. Premerlani eventually matriculated to second base in his junior year.

That summer, many of those veterans also played Legion baseball. And, as it had been in the spring, the Pittsfield entry was a strong one.

Belanger was only a sophomore, but according to anyone who was there, he was one of the best players on the team. In fact, "one of the best in the Northeast," according to O'Gara.

"Never makes a bad throw, never gets rattled," wrote O'Gara in 1962.

Belanger was one of many Pittsfield Legion stars. Joe Costanzo was of the best pitchers in New England, Ray Woikowski one of the best outfielders. Both would play in the minor leagues, along with another pitcher, Ted Friel.

Second baseman Red Soldato and catcher George Garivaltis were also standout players.

That 1962 team finished third in the country, reaching the National Finals in Hastings, Neb. Pittsfield was beaten in the national semis by a Montana team that featured Dave McNally, a future teammate of Belanger on the Baltimore Orioles.

This was the highest finish ever by a Pittsfield Legion team, no small feat for a city that has had a host of strong local nines for more than a century.

"That's when the scouts began coming around," said Al. "After Hastings, we'd see scouts at all Mark's baseball games for Pittsfield."

By Belanger's junior year, Pittsfield's basketball program, with Belanger as the centerpiece, was also doing well. Longtime powerhouse Adams High was favored to win the county in the 1960-61 season. Instead, Pittsfield beat the Hurricanes (so named because of their whirlwind, fast-break style) in both league games. The Generals were beaten in the Western Mass. tournament that year, but by the next year, Belanger, Premerlani and their teammates were heavily favored to win it all.

In fact, point guard Premerlani said, the team made it a goal to go unbeaten during the regular season, something no county team had ever done.

That hope was dashed early when Pittsfield lost to a powerful Chicopee High squad early in the year, and then again to crosstown rival St. Joseph later on.

"I was out with the flu that game," said Premerlani. "I listened to it on the radio. It was close all the way and St. Joe won on a buzzer-beater. After the game, Mark and bunch of the guys came over to my house and got on me for missing the game. They were joking, but we really wanted to win that one. But those were the only games we lost during the regular season."

After pounding Mount Everett in the county championship game, the Western Mass. tournament was next.

The tournament was a different beast in those years. Western Massachusetts extended all the way to Worcester and there was one division, with only eight teams getting in.

"We beat three Worcester teams," said Premerlani. "Northbridge, Worcester Classical and Fitchburg. Northbridge was a low-scoring game (Pittsfield won 46-44), we blew out Worcester (62-47) and we beat Fitchburg in a good game in the finals (65-60, with Belanger scoring 31 points, then a record for the Western Mass. final)."

It was a landmark win. Pittsfield had never won a Western Mass. title. In 1915, the team was declared the New England champion by some media outlets, including The Eagle, but there had been no knockout tournament. The high school tournament began in 1938.

In fact, there are many who still say Pittsfield's best hoop team ever was the 1958 squad, with Mike Mole, Kirk Leslie and Fred Cox.

"Yeah, that '58 squad," said Premerlani. "Mole was a fantastic point guard. And he and Leslie were co-captains at UMass their senior year. But they lost in the [Western Mass.] final."

The New England tournament format featured the champions of the other New England states, with the Eastern and Western Mass. champs also in the mix.

Pittsfield would face Hartford Public in the first round.

"We had a practice in the Boston Garden in the afternoon of the game," said Premerlani. "It was very exciting. Why not? It was the Garden, where the Celtics played.

"It was tied at halftime," said Premerlani of the game "They weren't that much bigger than we were, but they were very quick. They got the lead and scored a couple of cheap hoops at the end. They blew out the next two teams. We were their toughest game."

Griffin, a football and basketball star, eventually played both at Linwood College in Oregon and got a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys. He returned to the Hartford area and was a successful high school basketball coach for many years.

Belanger also got a chance to meet one of his athletic heroes, Boston player Bob Cousy. According to O'Gara, Cousy, who was on the verge of retirement, wasted no time and tried to recruit Belanger to play for his soon-to-be employer, Boston College.

But there were other forces at work. The Baltimore Orioles were interested. Very interested. A representative of the team visited the Belanger house several times.

And there were other colleges. Wake Forest and Syracuse, to name two, as well as UConn.

In the end, baseball won.

Part II: The Blade

"It came down to money," explained Al Belanger. "Scholarships had value, of course, but the Orioles offered a nice package."

It was $35,000, which, in 1962, went a long way. Belanger signed.

He toiled in the minors for a few years, but by 1965 he was in the major leagues.

"In his rookie year (in the minor leagues), I could tell even at 18, there wasn't going to be much anyone could teach him," said his manager at the time, Billy Hunter, in a New York Times story. "He was so solid. If anything, he was too smooth."

Almost from the start, he was the smoothest fielder in the big leagues. His teammates nicknamed him "The Blade" for his thin build.

Belanger won eight Gold Gloves. His .977 fielding percentage at shortstop is still one of the highest ever. His Orioles played in four World Series, winning in 1970. The Baltimore squads of the early 1970s were called, by many, "The Best Damn Team In Baseball." From 1969-71, the Orioles averaged 106 wins a year.

Belanger was part of perhaps the greatest defensive infield ever, with Brooks Robinson at third, Davey Johnson at second and Boog Powell at first.

"People got on Boog because he was big and slow," said the late Earl Weaver in a Sports illustrated article in 1990. "But he had great hands. He was perfect for that team."

"Mark was absolutely magical," said Weaver in a 2010 Boston Globe interview. "Our pitchers pitched with so much confidence with him and Brooks back there. They knew a line drive was an out, or a double play.

"That infield was the foundation of my philosophy," said Weaver, referring to his manta that winning baseball was "good pitching, good defense and three-run homers."

"I don't think I ever saw Mark make a bad play," said Weaver in the 2010 interview. "He was just a pleasure to watch."

"Never is a strong word," said Premerlani. "But I can say with certainty that I don't remember ever seeing Mark dive for a ball when we were playing or when he got to Baltimore. He used to tell me, 'If I dive, I don't think I can make the throw to first.' But he was always shifting back and forth from his spot, depending on the situation and the pitch."

Belanger spent 17 years with the Orioles, from 1965 to 1981, with one last year, 1982, with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"No one," wrote Roger Angell in a 1985 story, "ever played shortstop better than Mark Belanger."

The caveat, of course, was that Belanger was a terrible hitter, with a .228 career average. When Weaver was asked in 2010 about that, he said playing Belanger was "a no-brainer. His defense was too good. We had guys who could hit."

After his retirement, he began working with the Major League Baseball Players Association in New York. He was among four players who, alongside the union staff, negotiated in the 1981 strike.

"It's an education," he told the New York Times a few years after his retirement. "I'm learning as I go along."

Things were pretty good. He had a wife and two sons. In 1996, Premerlani was talking on the telephone to his friend.

"He said, 'I'm going skiing this weekend,'" said Premerlani. "I said, 'Skiing? You don't ski. You've never been on skis in your life.' And he said, 'Yeah, but it sounds like fun.' So I said, 'Okay, but be careful. Don't hurt yourself.'"

A week later, Premerlani got another call.

"I asked him how the skiing went, and he said, 'I did something to my back. It's kind of bothering me.' I told him to take it easy."

A week after that, the two men, who spoke often on the phone, were talking again.

"I said, 'How's the back?' " said Premerlani. "And he said, 'I think it's worse.' I said, 'So go to a doctor. Don't just suffer. Maybe you broke something back there.' So he said he would.

That's when we found out."

Belanger, a long-time smoker, had developed lung cancer.

"He battled it," said Al Belanger. "He hung in there. For about two years."

Mark Belanger died on Oct. 6, 1998 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

"Last week [Oct. 6] was the 19th anniversary of his death," said Al softly during an interview for this story.

One question remained, of course. Belanger, in a 1991 interview with the Baltimore Sun, said he believed basketball was his best sport. His brother agrees.

"Basketball, definitely," said Al Belanger.

"I'm asked that question a lot," admitted Premerlani. "And this is my response: In 1962, Mark was the best [high school] basketball player in Massachusetts. Or at least Western Mass. In baseball, though, there were a lot of guys in the state who were as good as he. There were some players in the Berkshires almost as good. He was good in both sports, and I think he would have had a good career in the NBA."

It was time to go. The reporter and the two friends had been sitting in a Pittsfield restaurant for hours. Everyone shook hands and slapped backs. As we parted, Premerlani pointed out that there had been a lot of speculation as to who the best Berkshire athlete of the 20th century might be, at least according to The Eagle.

"There's been a lot of talk around town," he said. "'Who's the best? Who's number one?'"

Premerlani, standing on the sidewalk on North Street, spread his hands.

"But," he said, "who the hell else could it be?"

Reach writer Derek Gentile at derekgentile11@gmail.com or 413-854-8162.


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