The Great Mischief Maker: Fred Dunlap and 19th Century Base Ball

Old Judge Cigarette card featuring Fred Dunlap, 1889. Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What was baseball like in the 1880s? Or I should say “base ball,” which is what they called it back in the 19th century. In many ways, “base ball” in the Victorian Age was similar to today’s game. If you time traveled back to May of 1880, when Fred Dunlap made his National League debut, you’d see a lot of familiar things, but some aspects of the game would be radically different.

A paying customer at a game in 1880 (what they called a “crank”), would see lots of guys running around a field in baseball uniforms. They would be tossing the baseball, which looked a lot like the ball used today. They would have swung wooden bats and ran bases 90 feet apart.

But, you’d also see smaller players. Much smaller players. The average American in the 1880s was several inches shorter and about 20 pounds lighter than the average citizen today. They would have been wearing heavy wool uniforms with frills you don’t see today, like lace and raised collars. Their socks (colored with dye that stained the player’s legs) would be high, their pant legs bloused, their cleats made from hard, uncomfortable leather.

Tiny Glove, Lots of Errors

Fred Dunlap, who was a second baseman, would have used a glove just a little bigger than a gardening glove you might use today. It would have been secured on his wrist with a single strap with a brass button. The glove would not have allowed Dunlap to reach any batted ball that didn’t hit him in the fingers or the palm. A hard-throw would have stung Dunlap’s hand.

Baseball fields were dusty and  rocky. The land was not manicured to perfection as it is today. The field might have large holes and uneven ground. An outfield might be pockmarked with gopher holes or have thick, tall weeds. Few parks had an outfield fence. Most boundaries were marked by poles and ropes. In 1880, when Dunlap went to the plate, he would have been facing a pitcher who threw from flat ground, 50 feet from home. The pitcher did his work from a “box,” a squared off dirt section that allowed for little momentum or much room to wind up and throw the baseball hard.

What’s a Home Run?

Seeing as the pitcher was only 50 feet away and few pitchers were throwing curveballs (and none were throwing sliders or split-finger pitches, etc.), hitting was a matter of timing the fastball. That was difficult from such a short distance. In 1880, the Cleveland Blues, for whom Dunlap played, hit seven home runs all season. Still, because defense was so difficult to play on shoddy fields and with small gloves, there were a lot of runs scored. In 1880, the teams of the National League averaged about five runs per game.

“Sure Shot” Dunlap

Dunlap was an excellent fielder for his era. He was called the “King of Second Basemen,” and his arm was so strong and accurate that they called him “Sure Shot.” He made 53 errors in 1880, but most infielders made between 45 and 60 errors back then. He got to more balls than most other infielders too: his range was superb, and he was good at turning a double play. Since the baseball was not very lively back then, there were a lot of balls hit to the infield.

By 1884, when he was only 25 years old, Dunlap was so revered that he was given a $12,000 three-year contract by the St. Louis Maroons, which was in the rival Union Association. His salary, which translates to more than $100,000 per year in 2021 dollars, made Dunlap the highest-paid ballplayer in the country. But money, and his pursuit for it, would gradually earn Fred a reputation as a trouble-maker.

The Union Association was not a good league. It had a few very good players, but the overall level of play was mediocre. Dunlap feasted on inferior pitching and batted .412 in 1884 with an amazing 185 hits in only 101 games. His team was far superior to the competition, going 94-19 in the new league, which disbanded after one season. The Maroons were successful in applying for a spot in the National League the following year.

Dunlap became a player-for-hire in the 1880s, hopping from St. Louis to Detroit and later to Pittsburgh. In 1886, late in the season, Dunlap was sold to Detroit by St. Louis for a record sum of $4,990. When he arrived in the city, the Detroit Free Press declared that he was a “disorganizer” and a “mischief maker.” 

In his first full season for the “Wolverines,” his defense at second base helped lead Detroit to their only National League title. But the following February he was shipped to Pittsburgh, but only after he negotiated to receive $2,000 of the $5,000 sales price. By that time, Dinlap was recognized as one of the most savvy and independent-minded ballplayers in the professional game.

Dunlap broke his leg on the final play of his baseball career, in April of 1891 while playing for Washington, his sixth team in 12 seasons. He was ornery to the end, filing a grievance against the team when they refused to pay him after he was hurt. He lost that case and retired from the game.

All that emphasis on money came back to haunt Dunlap. He reportedly had saved more than $100,000 from his baseball salary, but bad investments and a gambling habit seem to have drained his coffers. He died from some unknown malady at the age of 43 in 1902 in his hometown of Philadelphia. His funeral was patched together by a few former teammates, but it was apparently a pathetic farewell for the old ballplayer.

“There were not enough friends of Dunlap at his funeral to bury him,” one attendee said, “and we had to call on the [taxi] drivers to make up the list of active pall-bearers.”

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