Most U-M fans (both U-Ms, I suppose) know the basic jug story. Before the 1903 game between the two schools in Minneapolis, Fielding Yost dispatched U-M equipment manager Tommy Roberts to purchase a five gallon Red Wing water jug. After the brutally fought game of the undefeated teams ended in a 6-6 tie, Minnesota’s equipment manager Oscar Munson found Michigan’s jug and decided to keep it as a souvenir. When the Wolverines returned to Minnesota in 1909 the teams agreed that the winner should take the jug—and the victor of the game has retained the precious crock ever since.
That part of the story is pretty well established. But outside of that, there are still many misconceptions about the history of the jug and the rivalry that persist today. Here’s at five common myths..along with a discussion of the reality.
Myth #1: BROUGHT OR BOUGHT?
The Myth: Common lore suggests that U-M bought the jug because they feared Minnesota would try to “taint” Michigan’s water supply.
The truth of how and why the famous jug ended up on the U-M sidelines in 1903 has shifted around as the decades have passed. In the early days of the Jug rivalry, it was commonly understood that Michigan brought the jug and its own, familiar water from Ann Arbor. Furthermore most believed it was Yost feared the Gophers would attempt to spike their water. Decades later Michigan’s equipment manager Tommy Roberts revealed that he simply bought the jug in Minneapolis before the game and filled it with water in Minnesota.
While it’s possible that Michigan wanted its own jug to keep enemy hands off the water supply, it wasn’t a common practice for the Wolverines to carry water on road trips and it’s doubtful that Yost feared any foul play from Minnesota.
The Wolverines were experienced travelers, including most notably a trip to Pasadena for the first Rose Bowl in 1902. Not only did they see no advantage in bringing its own water to road game, doing so was actually quite a hassle. Legendary team trainer Keene Fitzpatrick actually talked about the team’s water strategy just a few days before the Michigan’s 1903 trip to Minneapolis [via the October 28, 1903 Michigan Daily]:
“Carrying water to which the men are accustomed on a trip is a big nuisance and of no practical benefit,” said the trainer. “Once only, when the ‘99 team went to Philadelphia, was this precaution taken by Michigan, and then we didn’t find that any advantage had been gained. On the long California trip the health of the team was not impaired by the change in drinking water.”
The last line implies they were actually more concerned about the changes in regional water (think about your last trip to Mexico) than with foul play. But despite all that Fitzpatrick determined it wasn’t worth it to carry water on the road. That said, of all the Little Brown Jug tales out there, the one that seems the most believable is that Michigan did buy the jug to ensure they controlled the source of their water.
The Reality: Michigan just bought a jug (and filled it) in Minnesota because it didn’t make sense to haul jugs/water from Ann Arbor. It’s unlikely Michigan actually were concerned that the Gophers would poison or spike the team’s water.
Myth #2: THE LETTER
The Myth: Common Jug lore suggests that once Fielding Yost found out he left the team’s water jug behind in Minnesota after the 1903 game, he wrote the Gophers asking for its return…and was told he’d need to “win it back”.
According to two accounts of those who were there when Michigan returned to Minnesota in 1909, Yost didn’t remember or really, know anything about the ceramic souvenir Minnesota confiscated six years earlier. For a man who was very outspoken and kept a detailed collection of personal correspondence, there’s no indication that Yost knew anything about the jug or cared about its return.
Given that the crock cost 30 cents and game tickets that season went for between two and three dollars, it was hardly an item of value. We also know Michigan’s cut from the 1903 Minnesota game was $13,000, which could have purchased over 40,000 replacement jugs.
Let’s say Yost did care about leaving the jug behind, for whatever reason. Maybe he was a very frugal man. Maybe he was bitter about the hard-fought 6-6 tie. Was Yost expecting Minnesota to pack up the jug and drop it in the mail or put it on a train back to Ann Arbor? How much would that shipment cost?
The Reality: Not only did Yost not even know he left a jug behind, if he did, he certainly wouldn’t have cared.
Myth #3: WOLVERINE DOMINATION
The Myth: Michigan has always dominated Minnesota in this series.
For the most part it is undeniable. Michigan has routinely gotten the better on the Gophers in this storied rivalry, especially since Bo Schembechler arrived in 1969. Consider that Minnesota has only retained the jug on three occasions since 1968.
But from the mid-1920s through the 1940s, you could argue that Michigan had no bigger rival and there was good reason: Minnesota was darn good. So good, in fact, that they claim five of their national titles between the years of 1934 and 1942. During that stretch the Gophers beat the Wolverines every single year (that’s nine straight).
No team before or since has put up a stretch of dominance so impressive.
The Reality: While the Wolverines have certainly had the upper hand overall (big time), the Gophers won nine straight games from 1934 to 1942.
Myth #4: JUG SURVIVAL
The Myth: If you ask the living equipment managers from Michigan and Minnesota, they believe the jug that’s in service today is indeed the same jug from 1903.
Given that we’re talking about a fragile piece of pottery that has been toted back and forth between the schools dozens of times, it would seem to be a longshot that the jug has always made it back in one piece.
While there’s no major news report that announced the jug was ever broken, damaged or replaced, the Minnesota Daily claimed that in 1924 the jug was fractured and repaired in Red Wing, Minnesota. Oscar Munson, the Gopher custodian who originally found the jug in Michigan’s locker room in 1903, claimed before he died that the jug was indeed replaced at some point. In the 1930s Munson also told the media that the original jug had a broken handle, but there doesn’t seem to be any repairs on the current jug.
Despite these stories, there is evidence that suggests the jug may have survived all these years. A photo overlay of the existing jug to a photo from 1909 shows that at least at the top (the spout, handle and shape of the jug) are a spot-on match. In 2009 Ryan Forrey, the master potter at Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum, inspected the jug along with several photos of the original piece and is convinced that it’s likely today’s jug is indeed the real deal. Furthermore, beneath the Minnesota ‘M’ painted on jug today is an older style ‘M’ logo that appears to date to the 1920s, suggesting the current jug dates at least to that period.
The Reality: There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the jug has survived. If not, it likely dates at least to the 1920s.
Myth #5: JUG LOST AND FOUND?
The Myth: A commonly told story is that the jug was lost in the 1930s and later found behind “a clump of bushes” at “a gas station” in Ann Arbor.
Thankfully I think I’ve corrected this myth in most places (including at the athletic department), but for the FULL story of what happened when the jug disappeared go herethe jug disappeared go here. The trophy was missing between September 1931 and August 1933. It wasn’t recovered “behind a clump of bushes by a gas station attendant” as this is blending two incidents. An imitation jug was dropped off at a gas station in 1931 and yes, handled by an attendant. A different jug, by all accounts the real deal, was found in bushes on campus in 1933.
Get all of your Little Brown Jug Lore here.
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