Any discussion of Fred Dunlap must at some point address his 1884 season with the St. Louis Maroons. It was, without a doubt, a brilliant season and one of the most dominant seasons any player has ever had. The problem is, of course, that this season took place in the Union Association.
In 1884, Dunlap, according to Baseball Reference, hit .412 with an on base percentage of .448, a slugging percentage of .621, and an OPS+ of 258. He had 185 hits and scored 160 runs (setting a new major league record). He also had 39 doubles, 8 triples, and 13 home runs. He lead the UA in hitting, on base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, hits, total bases, home runs, OPS, OPS+, runs created, and extra base hits. He was also second in doubles and fourth in triples. All of this while being the best defensive player in the league and the captain of the team that won the league by twenty one games.
Dunlap lead the UA in hitting by 52 points. He lead in on base percentage by 51 points. He lead in slugging percentage by 120 points. He scored 30 more runs than anybody else in the league. Dunlap was far and away the best player in the Union Association in 1884.
At Alex Reisner.com, Dunlap's 1884 season is shown to be the most dominate season any player has ever had. No baseball player has ever risen so far above the mean as Dunlap did in 1884. I would argue that no professional athlete has ever dominated a league the way that Dunlap did in 1884.
The UA wasn't much of a league and Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract, has constructed a powerful argument that it shouldn't even be considered a major league. I have no reason not to accept James' argument and conclusions about the UA. It was a crappy little league with only one decent team and maybe a dozen players that could be considered of major league quality.
But Fred Dunlap dominated that league. He dominated the UA in a way that no other baseball player has ever dominated a baseball league. He wasn't just the best player in the league-he was far and away the best player in the league. He was the best hitter in the league. He was the best second baseman in the league. He was the best defensive player in the league. He captained the best team. He was essentially a man among boys.
It would be one thing if Dunlap had joined the Maroons in 1884 and just had a career year. You could look at it and say "Oh, that's a nice little year but it came in that crap little league that only lasted one year." But that's not what this season was. Dunlap's 1884 season is a great player dominating lesser competition. His season says as much about Dunlap as a player as it does about the UA as a league.
I think that's what needs to be stressed. Dunlap's 1884 season was a direct result of his talent. Yes, the numbers themselves are inflated by the quality of the league and Dunlap would never have been able to rise so far above the mean if he was playing in a better league but no other player in the UA did what Dunlap did in 1884. No other player in any league at any time was been able to do what Dunlap did in 1884. And while some may want to dismiss the UA, they shouldn't be allowed to dismiss what Dunlap accomplished.
How many players were capable of doing what Dunlap did? How many players could have dominated a league, any league, offensively and defensively? Fred Dunlap did that in 1884 and, regardless of circumstances, that should be respected.