When the late Fred Dunlap was in his prime, he was generally referred to as the king of second baseman; yet his claim to that title was always disputed. As a matter of fact there were at least two men covering the same position whose respective followers claimed that their particular favorite was the only real king. Fred Pfeffer, of the Chicagos, and Bid McPhee, of the Cincinnati (Association) Reds, were the men who divided the honors with Dunlap. Burdock, of the Bostons; Lew Bierbauer, of the Athletics (although the latter was a comparatively kid player at the time), and Yank Robinson, of the St. Louis Browns, also had their admirers, who thought them just as good as the others. To-day there can be no question about the premiership of second base. Lajoie is first in a class by himself.
Dunlap was undoubtedly one of the most finished players that ever handled a ball. In ease of action, Lajoie and Collins are the only men playing to-day who approach him. He handled a ball "clean" and rarely fumbled or missed it on the first attempt. How accurate his eye for distance must have been is best shown by the fact that in all the years he played ball he never broke a finger or had a knuckle out of place. But for the muscularity of his hands he could have been taken for a billiard rather than a base ball expert. Nobody better knew the points of the game and no one exercised more skill and audacity in working them. He was unusually successful in working the "trapped ball" trick before that play was legislated out of existence, and in conjunction with Briody he seemed to have all the other second basemen beaten in heading at the plate a runner who tried to score from third on another runner's attempt to steal second. He never lost sight of the runner third and if he saw the latter was only making a bluff of running home, he rarely missed the man running to second. In working a double play from short to second to first, the writer has seen Dunlap stop a poor throw with his left hand, and with the same motion throw the ball into his right, and then fire it up to first in time to head his man. Dunlap was only a mediocre batsman, but he was a good inside man at that. He was a hard man to pitch to and got more than his allowance of bases on balls. He was a splendid man on the bases when a run was needed but took no chances when there was no necessity to do so. He made it a point to run everything out and never lost sight of the ball. he always overran first and turned on a base hit, and if the fielder made the slightest miscue the chances are that "Dunny" would make second.
But Dunlap's claims to distinction in base ball were not confined to his ability as a player. He will probably be remembered longer as the player who blazed the road to high salaries. He is said to have received as high as $7000 in one season from Pittsburg and it was his boast that he never lost a penny on a contract. As a boy he had comparatively few educational advantages, but he did possess a big stock of sound horse sense. He always had his contract drawn up by a lawyer of his own selection and no amount of persuasion could induce him to change his practice. When he retired permanently from the game in about 1901, Dunlap was supposed to be worth about $35,000. For five or six years he was a familiar sight about town, always looking as though he had just emerged from a bandbox. Always taking out and never putting in, Dunny's roll began to diminish. Finally he went broke. Too proud to let his wants be known even to his friends, he was almost lost sight of until by the merest accident one of his old-time friends learned of his condition and secured him a room in St. Agnes' Hospital. He was beyond all human aid, and died three weeks later.
-Philadelphia Inquirer, December 8, 1902
Yes, I'm having a bit of fun poking at Dunlap's character but don't let that blind you to the fact that he was, arguably, the best player in the League in 1883. He was the best second baseman in the League in the early part of the 1880s and then had that monster year in the UA. The man was a great ballplayer and, ironically, that monster year in that joke of a league has kind of blinded us to his true value.
A lot of folks have spent a lot of time pointing out, correctly, that the UA was a joke and that Dunlap's 1884 season has to be seen in that context. Put 1990 Barry Bonds in the Frontier League and he was going to put up some unbelievable numbers also. That's all true and I don't have any argument with it but I think the analytical quest to put 19th century leagues in their proper context has had a derogatory effect upon our analysis of the totality of Dunlap's career and has blinded us to the greatness of his play in the early 1880s.
It also doesn't help that he was kind of a jerk-off.