Mark Belanger: The other No. 7 -
The Bird Tapes

Mark Belanger: The other No. 7 is delighted to be partnering with John Eisenberg, the author and longtime Baltimore sports columnist, whose latest venture is an Orioles history project called The Bird Tapes. Available on a subscription basis at, the Bird Tapes is built around a set of vintage interviews with Orioles legends that Eisenberg recorded a quarter-century while writing a book about the team. Paid subscribers can hear the interviews, which have been digitized to make them easily consumable. The Bird Tapes also includes new writing on Orioles history from Eisenberg, who is the author of 11 books, including two on the Orioles. will publish Eisenberg’s new writing.


When Jackson Holliday expressed a desire to wear uniform No. 7 after being called up to the Orioles earlier this season, the general reaction, both within the organization and among fans, focused on whether it was appropriate for him to take the number that the late Cal Ripken Sr. wore while managing the Orioles — and both of his sons, Cal Jr. and Bill — in the 1980s.

No Oriole had worn No. 7 since Bill switched to it from No. 3 as a form of protest after the Orioles fired Senior as their manager six games into the 1988 season, abruptly dismissing someone who had played, coached, scouted and managed in the Orioles’ system since the 1950s.

“I just didn’t want to see anyone else wear it,” Bill said at the time about his father’s number.

But that was a long time ago. Years later, Ripken Sr. is remembered fondly for his positive contributions to the organization, and neither Bill nor Cal Jr., now a minority owner of the Orioles, expressed concern about Holliday wearing No. 7. After receiving a personal blessing from Junior in a phone conversation, Holliday took the field wearing the number. Although he eventually was sent back to the minors, he’s expected to play for years in Baltimore as No. 7.

All good. Totally fine. The only problem with the scenario was it unfolded with barely a mention of another significant Oriole who wore No. 7 – wore it for a lot longer than Ripken Sr., in fact.

Mark Belanger played in nearly 2,000 games for the Orioles between 1965 and 1981. He was their starting shortstop for most of that time, and he didn’t just man the position; he excelled defensively like few shortstops in the history of the game.

Nicknamed “Blade” because of his spindly frame, he won eight Gold Gloves and repeatedly ranked among the American League leaders in fielding percentage, putouts, assists, participation in double plays — any quantifiable measure of excellence at his position.

“He was sure-handed, had a great arm, covered a lot of ground, went in the hole and made plays,” said the late Paul Blair, another defensive stalwart for the Orioles in those years, in a 1999 interview for my oral history of the franchise.

(Interestingly, Belanger is also listed as a second baseman on the baseball card headlining this post. It’s from early in his career, before he was established.)

Belanger commanded the infield on nine Baltimore teams that made the playoffs, four that won the American League pennant and two that won the World Series. The sophisticated statistical analysis that emerged in baseball after he played further confirmed his important contribution to that success. Among every major leaguer who ever suited up, Belanger ranks second all-time in dWAR — defensive wins above replacement, a measurement of a player’s importance as a defender compared to a statistically average player at his position.

Let’s repeat that. Belanger is second all-time. Among all major leaguers.

“I don’t see how you can be any better” defensively, Brooks Robinson told me in his 1999 interview for my book.

Why is it, then, that Belanger’s No. 7 isn’t as vividly recalled as the uniform numbers of other important Orioles such as Brooks, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson and Eddie Murray? Why did his name barely surface when Jackson Holliday wanted the number?

The easy answer is a shortstop also has to hit, and Belanger wasn’t nearly as adept with a bat in his hands. A career .228 hitter, he was a fixture at the bottom of the Orioles’ order for so long that it almost could be nicknamed Belangerland. He poked just 20 home runs in 6,602 career plate appearances.

Without the luminous offensive numbers that garner so much attention now, Belanger is an obvious candidate to get increasingly overlooked as the years go by. He was preceded as the Orioles’ shortstop by Luis Aparicio in the 1960s and followed by Ripken in the 1980s – a sandwich of Hall of Famers. He lined up for years next to Robinson, another Hall of Famer. Attention is hard to come by in that company.

Sadly, Belanger also didn’t live long enough to pop up now and then and remind fans of what he accomplished back in the day. He died at age 54 in 1999 after a bout with cancer.

I interviewed him several times when I worked at The Baltimore Sun, but he was gone by the time I started collecting interviews for my book about the history of the team. The absence of his voice was one of my biggest regrets about the book.

(Note: My Substack posts that include the vintage interviews are available via a paid subscription, which also gives you unlimited access to the archive of interviews. Free subscribers to the Bird Tapes will receive immediate access to my new written work, which will also be published here at on a different schedule.)

But his teammates made sure he didn’t go unmentioned, and neither did his manager. Earl Weaver’s tenure as the Orioles’ manager coincided almost exactly with Belanger’s run at shortstop, from the late 60s to the early 80s. And it’s quite telling, I think, that Weaver, one of the shrewdest tacticians ever, never blinked at writing Belanger’s name into the lineup, despite his offensive struggles.

“Belanger was so good that it didn’t matter what he hit,” Weaver told me. “Here’s the deal. The other team has men on first and second, one out, and that ball hit to Brooks’ left or Belanger’s right never went through. It was up to second (with the ball), on to first, three outs and we’re back on the bench getting ready to hit. And I’d seen the same ball against our opposition go into left field. I mean, you were saving a whole lot of pitches and a whole lot of runs. It was just the most fantastic thing in the world.”

When Ripken Sr. joined Weaver’s coaching staff in 1976, Belanger was at the peak of his prowess. It was only after Belanger’s retirement that No. 7 became available.

Given the importance of the Ripkens in Orioles history, it’s appropriate that memories of Senior were conjured when Holliday asked for the number.

But memories of the shortstop known as Blade also were warranted.

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