The conventional wisdom regarding the best second basemen of the 19th century usually has Fred Dunlap well back of such players as Bid McPhee, Cupid Childs, Ross Barnes, and Hardy Richardson. While I'm not one to play "who's better than who" and I don't keep a list of my top 1000 players at each position, I will say that the idea that Hardy Richardson was better than Dunlap flies in the face of some basic evidence such as the fact that when the two men were on the same team, Dunlap was the starting second baseman. As to the others, I honestly couldn't tell you if they were better than Dunlap. But there are plenty of people who saw all these guys play and many of them believe that Dunlap was the best second baseman of his generation.
Al Spink called Dunlap "far and away the greatest second baseman that ever lived" and said that "of the great players of the olden times Fred Dunlap was considered by many the greatest." "(None of his contemporaries) could begin to compare with Dunlap in all around work or in covering the bag," he wrote in The National Game.
And Spink is not a lone voice in the wilderness. Stanley Robinson called Dunlap the greatest second baseman of his time and "perhaps the greatest player that ever lived." James Spaulding called Dunlap "the greatest second baseman who ever lived." Al Bauer, in 1886, called Dunlap "the best baseball player on the diamond." The Sporting News, at the same time, called Dunlap "the king pin of second basemen and the greatest fielder in America."
But Bill James doesn't think much of Dunlap as a player. He sees Dunlap's great 1884 season as illegitimate and goes so far as to say that Dunlap was "never a legitimate star" or that he was only a "minor star". The influence of James is wide and deep and, for those who know little or nothing about Dunlap and 19th century baseball, his word is the gospel truth. The Wikipedia article on Dunlap is an example of this. Just one paragraph long, the only reference that it sites is The Historical Baseball Abstract. It's final sentence, parroting James, claims that Dunlap "was never a star player in a full major league."
The problem is that James' assertion and the conventional wisdom can not be reconciled with the opinions of people like Spinks, Robinson, Spaulding, and Bauer. It can't be reconciled with the fact that Dunlap went to Detroit and took the starting second baseman's job from Richardson (James' choice for the best second baseman of the 1880's). It can't be reconciled with the fact that Dunlap's injuries and contract squabbles were front page news in the New York Times. It can't be reconciled with the fact that Dunlap was considered the best defensive player in the game. It can't be reconciled with the fact that Dunlap was the highest paid player on two championship teams. It can't be reconciled with the fact that he dominated the UA in a way that no professional athlete has ever dominated a league.
Fred Dunlap was a legitimate star in a legitimate league prior to 1884 and he was a legitimate star in a legitimate league after 1884. In fact there were very few players who had as much of an impact on baseball in the 1880's as Dunlap did. It's a shame that James and others don't recognize that.