Book Review: When The Cubs Won It All

When the Cubs Won It All

By George R. Matthews

McFarland (, 2009

List Price: $29.95 

This year marks the 102nd anniversary of the Chicago Cubs’ last World Series championship. Suffice it to say, the game has changed nearly as much as the team’s fortunes since then, when they were the three-time defending National League pennant winners and had just won back-to-back World Series. 

In those early days, all but three NL cities banned Sunday baseball. Travel from Chicago to stops in New York and Boston required a two-day train ride. Most games were officiated by a single umpire. And fans (or “bugs” as they were then known) were legally required to return foul balls to the home team. (Perhaps this rule might have lessened Steve Bartman’s desire to corral that foul ball in 2003 and given the Cubs a shot at another pennant.) 

George R. Matthews recounts Chicago’s 1908 season of glory in “When the Cubs Won It All.” That year saw what many regard as the greatest pennant chase in the game’s history, with the Cubs, Giants, and Pirates battling until the very end in the NL, while meanwhile the Tigers and White Sox fought to the last game over in the American League. Fred Merkle’s infamous baserunning blunder led to one final do-over contest between the Cubs and Giants in New York, a game matching Hall-of-Famers Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown and Christy Mathewson. Chicago, of course, cemented Merkle’s place in history by eliminating his team and advancing to the Series. 

Several previous books have been penned on the 1908 season (most recently, Cait Murphy’s “Crazy ’08”), but Matthews differentiates his by focusing on the Cubs. He follows the team day-by-day from spring training through their triumphant return to Chicago in October. The book makes extensive use of Charley Dryden’s writings in the Chicago Tribune. In fact, about 95 percent of the book’s end notes reference Tribune stories by Dryden and his partner I.E. Sanborn. This is simultaneously the strength and weakness of the book. Nowhere else would Matthews have found such rich detail of the Cubs’ championship run. But the over reliance on Tribune clippings makes much of the book read like a diary of game recaps, and despite recognizable names of stars such as Brown, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance, the scoring summaries bog down in a hurry. 

Additionally, there are places where the team’s story deserves a fuller fleshing out than what would have appeared in a newspaper of that era, when the writers traveled, ate, drank, and played cards with the players. What happened in the clubhouse generally stayed in the clubhouse. Particularly in the case of the brawl between left fielder Jimmy Sheckard and utilityman Heinie Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who hit Sheckard in the face with a bottle of ammonia, was in return pummeled by teammates so badly he had to be taken to the hospital. Both Sheckard and Zimmerman missed time while recuperating. This episode was covered up by Dryden, and as a result we get a somewhat cursory account of what certainly had to be one of the more significant events for the team that summer. 

On the other hand, Matthews gives us plenty on the Merkle game and its fallout—and there was no shortage of that. The Cubs filed two separate protests and the Giants one after the game was declared a tie by umpire Hank O’Day and NL president Harry Pulliam. Of course, all protests were denied and the game was replayed following the conclusion of the regular season when the Giants and Cubs wound up tied atop the league. 

Dryden’s notes, which ran along with his game stories, encapsulate the goings on of the era. From the distracting and controversial Merry Widow hats worn by ladies of the day (imagine a woman sitting in the row ahead of you with a hat so tall you can’t see the field) to the jubilant fans hurling their seat cushions at fellow spectators, we get a feel for the action in the grandstand. Cartoons by Claire Briggs, which accompanied many of Dryden’s stories, are reprinted here, further providing some flavor of the day. 

Dryden, who was honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 1965 (34 years after his death), is regarded by many as the sport’s first humorist. In fact, he was once dubbed “the Mark Twain of sportswriters.” Some of his wit comes through in longer quotes, but unfortunately, it doesn’t carry over to the majority of the text. That kind of style could have elevated “When the Cubs Won It All” from a workmanlike recap of the 1908 campaign to a lively portrayal of one of the game’s most storied seasons. Matthews does a solid job presenting the facts, but there was only one Charley Dryden. 

James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at