Our Opinion: Belanger rounds out an impressive Top 50 of Berkshire athletes

He was one of the greatest defensive shortstops to play Major League Baseball — but some who knew him back when claim to this day that basketball was his best sport. Mark Belanger stands atop the Berkshire Eagle's list of the Top 50 athletes of the 20th century, a list that attests to the skills and versatility of the Berkshires' home-grown athletes.

Mr. Belanger played in the big leagues for 18 years, 17 of them with the Baltimore Orioles, and won eight Gold Gloves as the best defender at his position (Eagle, October 30). He wasn't a great hitter but didn't need to be, so outstanding was his fielding at a crucial position on the diamond. Nonetheless, Mr. Belanger, who grew up in Lanesborough and attended Pittsfield High School, is also remembered fondly here for his 32 points and 11 rebounds in the New England schoolboy championships of 1962, where he nearly carried an undermanned PHS squad to victory over a Hartford powerhouse in the Boston Garden. "He was good in both sports and I think he would have had a good career in the NBA," said Mr. Belanger's long-time friend, Richard Premerlani, in an interview with Derek Gentile.

Mr. Belanger, who retired after the 1982 season, played in an era when ballplayers were paid more like school teachers than rock stars and often had to work in the off-season. Early in his baseball career, Mr. Belanger could be spotted selling shoes and sneakers on a winter's day at the Besse-Clarke department store in Pittsfield. Sadly, the great shortstop died too young in 1998 at age 54 of lung cancer.

It isn't news that Berkshire County is fertile ground for baseball players, but the makeup of the Top 50 list documents it.. Seven of the top 13 players on the list played professional baseball, an extraordinary percentage for such a lightly populated area. This includes Jeff Reardon of Dalton (3), "Turk" Wendell, like Mr. Reardon a star at Wahconah Regional High School, at 6, and Pittsfield's Tommy Grieve at 9. Not surprisingly, given the prevalence of snow and ski areas in the Berkshires, five skiers who achieved national and international recognition are listed in the Top 30.

The men and women on the Top 50 list representing a wide variety of sports testify to the richness of Berkshire County sports. Those honored went on to successful careers in a similarly wide variety of fields, which could speak to the character needed to succeed at sports at a high level, the character-building nature of sports, or most likely, both.

Candidates for an Eagle Top 50 list of Berkshire County athletes of the 21st century may already be displaying their gifts on the ball fields, ski slopes, tracks, rinks and courts of the county. They will have a tough act to follow.


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