Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Never A Legitimate Star


"Never a legitimate star in a legitimate major league..." That's what Bill James wrote about Fred Dunlap in The Historical Baseball Abstract. I think that anyone who's been following this blog knows that I disagree with this and the photo above is more evidence that I'm correct in my thinking.

This a picture of the back of an 1888 Goodwin & Company album of their Champions set of tobacco inserts. It comes from the Zmotive Ebay gallery and I don't have much more information about it. I'm not sure if the album contained all fifty cards or just the eight baseball cards.

But lets think about this for a minute. Goodwin & Company issued a set of fifty cards and in that set included eight cards featuring baseball players. One of those players was Fred Dunlap-the illegitimate Dunlap mixed in with real stars like King Kelly, Cap Anson, and Dan Brouthers. And on top of that, they actually went and included the illegitimate Dunlap in the cover art.

What to make of this? Maybe (and just maybe) the illegitimate Dunlap was, in fact, considered a legitimate star by contemporary observers. Maybe (and just maybe) when Al Spink wrote things like Dunlap was "far and away the greatest second baseman that ever lived" and "of the great players of the olden times Fred Dunlap was considered by many the greatest," he was stating the conventional wisdom of the era. Maybe (and just maybe), we should pay more attention to people like Stanley Robinson who called Dunlap "perhaps the greatest player that ever lived."

There are more quotes about Dunlap like those by Spink and Robinson but I think I've already flogged that horse to death.

4 comments:

Richard Hershberger said...

There is a tendency for people's regard for Bill James's statistical work to spill over into his history writing. It is quite obvious to me that with the 19th century he doesn't really have a firm grasp of the material.

My usual example is his assertion that Brooklyn's Union and Capitoline Grounds were actually the same facility, named "Union and Capitoline", and writers who said they were two facilities are mistaken. Umm... No, they aren't.

I can see how one might think the two were one facility. They are often discussed together, and it would be easy to interpretthe formula "Union and Capitoline Grounds" this way. But no one who spends the time to be really familiar with the material would make this mistake. This is the sign of someone working outside his area of expertise.

Jeff Kittel said...

The Dunlap thing is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I know that I can be a bit parochial when it comes to my interest in 19th century baseball but I see no evidence supporting the conventional wisdom regarding Dunlap. While I certainly have a great deal of respect for James, he is the person most responsible for creating the conventional wisdom and his assertion that Dunlap was never a star is just flat wrong. His general analysis of the UA and Dunlap's abilities as a ballplayer may be spot on but he certainly failed to recognize Dunlap's historical significance and the esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries.

David Ball said...

From time to time in the Historical Baseball Abstract James himself remarks on the limitations of his knowledge of 19th c. baseball. He rarely lets this interfere with his habit of expressing positive opinions n pungent language, however. As a result, his material on the 19th c. is a remarkable melange of shrewd insight, penetrating observation, unwitting reprise of other people's research, half-baked misinterpretation and downright factual error.

When I read his historical abstract, I thought, well, the caveats are all very nice, but James' authority is such that people will read right through them and accept all his substantive opinions at face value, right or wrong. And I think that's exactly what's happened.

I would say Ross Barnes, not Dunlap, is the player who has suffered most severely at James' hands, but Dunlap's case is bad enough. Maybe he really wasn't the king of second basemen, as conventional wisdom held in Dunlap's day. James apparently doesn't think so, and James has successfully challenged conventional wisdom before. But when he calls George Sisler the most overrated player in history, James acknowledges he's contradcting the usual opinion and takes some effort to justify himself. I'd like to see him do that with Dunlap, but he does nothing of the kind. Does he not think it's worth the bother? Or is he not even aware of how highly Dunlap was regarded? On the basis of my reading of the Abstract, it's difficult to decide.

Jeff Kittel said...

"When I read his historical abstract, I thought, well, the caveats are all very nice, but James' authority is such that people will read right through them and accept all his substantive opinions at face value, right or wrong. And I think that's exactly what's happened."

I think that nails it pretty well.