In November of 1887, Fred Dunlap made a statement that today would sound rather reasonable but must have been fairly shocking at the time. Speaking about his contract demands, Dunlap said that "he had adopted baseball as a profession and he was in the business to make money..." While baseball players had been playing the game for money for well over twenty years by 1886, people had been listing their profession as "baseball player" on census forms since 1880, and countless players were making a living by playing the game, the idea that a baseball player was a craftsman making a living at his trade the same as a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker in many ways flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day.
In 1887, baseball was not very far removed from the days of the baseball club as a vehicle for social interaction and exercise. The game itself was still in the process of organizing itself into the business that would become Major League Baseball. The vast majority of players in the country either played simply for the love of the game without any financial compensation or played for a portion of the gate receipt rather than a contractual salary. The fawning, supportive press of the day portrayed the players as sportsmen/heroes rather than craftsmen engaged in a trade. But those involved in the game at the highest levels-the owners, operators, managers, and players-knew that they were involved in a business and knew that the goal of all of their machinations was to make money.
Fred Dunlap, who over the course of his life would show an astute business sense, understood the nature of the game as a business. As one of the best players in the game, he would press every advantage that he had to gain the financial upper hand over his employers. Throughout the 1880's, Dunlap would press these advantages to become the highest paid player in the game. His tactics would be described as "astounding" and "disturbing". When taken within the context of the reserve clause, the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the Brush Classification Plan, the Players' League, and the general struggle of baseball players for what John M. Ward would call their "rights", Dunlap becomes a fairly significant figure.
Dunlap seized control of his financial destiny in 1883 when Henry Lucas went looking for players for his St. Louis Maroons team in the fledgling Union Association. Dunlap, who had broke in with the National League's Cleveland team as a rookie sensation in 1880, was the best defensive second baseman in the game and one of the top players in the League. Initially brushing aside Lucas' offer, Dunlap eventually joined the Maroons after Lucas offered him a two year, $5,000 a year guaranteed contract. According to The Sporting News, Lucas paid Dunlap the $10,000 upfront.
Cleveland made a concerted effort, with the support of League President A.G. Mills, to get Dunlap back from the Maroons in the early part of 1884. Dunlap made it known that he was willing to return to the League-specifically, he wanted to join the New York League team-if he could get a guaranteed contract for $4,000 a year. Pressure was put on Cleveland to release Dunlap to New York but Mills killed the deal, fearing that Dunlap, in the process of the release, might end up with a club in the American Association. Dunlap, because of his signing with the UA, was eventually blacklisted from Organized Baseball although rumours persisted that Cleveland was still trying to get him back.
Things did not go well for Dunlop in St. Louis, in spite of the on-field success that both he and the Maroons enjoyed in 1884. While specifics of the problems are unknown, Lucas called Dunlap "the most ungrateful man I had ever seen" and told the New York Times that he and Dunlap "could not get along together". In December of 1885, the Maroons tried to sell Dunlap to the Philadelphia League team for $3,000. Supposedly, the deal had been agreed to and Lucas was only waiting for Philadelphia to pay him the money. For whatever reason, the deal fell threw and Dunlap resigned with St. Louis. On December 30, 1885, Dunlap's resigning made the front page of the New York Times.
In August of 1886, Dunlap was sold to Detroit for a price reported to be between $4,000 and $5,000. Maroons' manager Gus Schmelz claimed that "Detroit paid more for Dunlap than was ever paid for a single player" and that "Dunlap has been dissatisfied with St. Louis all season, and that is one of the reason for his release." Reportedly, Dunlap was given a $2,500 bonus to accept the sale, on top of a salary of $6,000 that was the highest on a Detroit team that would win the League and World Series championships in 1887.
After their championship season, Detroit tried to sell Dunlap to Pittsburgh in November of 1887 for $4,000. Dunlap "astounded" Detroit by saying that he would not agree to the transfer unless he received half the sales price and a two year guaranteed contract at $5,000 a year. While in 1895 the Brooklyn Eagle would call Dunlap a player who knew how to drive a sharp bargain, at the time the Eastern press, in reaction to Dunlap's demands, called the player a "disorganizer and a disturbing element."
Dunlap had quite a bit to say about his demands and his potential transfer to Pittsburgh. While stipulating that he would agree to the transfer if "arrangements suitable to him were made", Dunlop told the New York Times that "I will not consult to be sold unless I can benefit by it...I want one half of the (sale) sum or you cannot do business with me...I am sick and tired of being sold without gaining anything by it, and it is about time that my bank account was benefited by these transfers...If (Detroit President) Stearns refuses to give me one-half of the money he procures for my release I will not agree to play in any city that he designates...(If) my requests are not complied with I will refuse to play baseball...and devote my time to business." Dunlap claimed that he had saved and invested enough money that he no longer needed to play baseball to make a living.
In a fascinating statement, Dunlap went on to say that the Detroit manager "will have to do one of three things-give me half of the money secured for my release, allow me to go where I please, or fulfill the contract made with me for next year." Dunlap had offered to release Detroit from their guaranteed contractual obligations to him if they allowed him to become a free agent and "go where I please". It was a radical statement for a baseball player to make ninety years before the Messersmith case and the advent of modern free agency.
Detroit and Pittsburgh eventually capitulated to Dunlap's demands and, on January 3, 1888, Dunlap was sold to Pittsburgh for $4,000. Dunlap received a $2,000 bonus and the two year, guaranteed contract. In the twilight of his career, and already plagued by the leg injuries that would end his playing days, Dunlap received a total of $12,000 over his final two full big league seasons.
Dunlap's actions in 1887/88 stand at the center of what Harold Seymour called "The Great Player Revolt". The Brotherhood was formed in 1885, partially in response to the restrictions of the reserve clause. The Classification Plan that would set maximum salaries for players was formulated in 1889. Finally, in 1890, the Players' League was formed, attempting a radical restructuring of the business of baseball. Ethan Lewis called the Players' League "a case of skilled laborers attempting to regain control over the sale of their product (baseball games) from the profit driven entrepreneurs who controlled the established major leagues. The Players' League was a...revolution...which enabled players to have more rights and options than the established major leagues permitted." Dunlap's actions are a forgotten part of this movement and a significant moment in the history of the business of baseball.