My fondness for the Little Brown Jug rivalry probably isn’t hard to explain to those who read this site. I run a regular feature called eBay Watch highlighting Michigan football memorabilia so digging into the story of the jug, the ultimate piece of Michigan (and perhaps college football) memorabilia was a natural fit for me.
But the work I began earlier this year was kickstarted almost by accident. As part of the research for my piece on the 1909 season for Brian Cook’s excellent Hail to the Victors 2009, I stubbed my toe on an interesting account of jug history. While looking for game recaps for the ‘09 season, I thumbed through the 1910 Michiganensian—the U-M yearbook for the 1909-10 school year. In it I found a page devoted to the Little Brown Jug containing the classic old photo of what I call the ‘Oscar jug’:
It’s a wonderful pic that I’ve seen before of the jug as it was decorated shortly after Minnesota obtained it in 1903 and returned to the Wolverine team that school year. Yes, the original jug was actually white, not brown (and not little!) reflecting its stoneware look and feel. But more interesting to me was the article that accompanied the photo on the same page.
The coach of the 1909 Gophers was a gent named Henry ‘Doc’ Williams who was also around in 1903 when the jug was left behind in Minneapolis by Yost and the Wolverines. Williams is quoted in the Michiganensian piece offering a few curious details about the origin of the rivalry that left me scratching my noggin:
The Michiganders had made much of the jug during the season of 1903. It went everywhere with them and the perspiring warriors of the gridiron drank from its heavy mouth during every contest on the schedule. After each game the score was emblazoned on the side of the jug. In addition, Williams “confessed that his men had willfully stolen the jug.” Hmmm.
For those not familiar with the commonly accepted origin of the Jug rivalry, it’s not disputed that Michigan equipment manager Tommy Roberts bought the jug in Minneapolis for the 1903 game and that it was simply found, not stolen, after the game by Minnesota’s Oscar Munson. Personal accounts by Roberts, Munson and others back up these details. That’s why Williams’ comments were so puzzling to me.
One has to assume that Doc Williams was playfully building up the meaning of the new trophy by spinning a few yarns to the willing media, suggesting that the jug the Wolverines left behind six years prior was akin to Gollum’s precious.
The tale tales didn’t stop in 1909. After the 1919 game the Minneapolis Tribune took the thievery myth to a new level, suggesting that the jug was actually swiped from Ann Arbor, presumably in 1902:
Long years ago when Minnesota and Michigan were annual rivals, some enthusiastic Gopher players purloined that coarse, common little brown jug from the Michigan gymnasium and took it to Minneapolis with them. The Michiganders wrote for their jug, and were told they’d get it back only in the event of Michigan winning the next game.
A piece in the Michigan Daily from 1920 added its own brand of spice to the rivalry. After mentioning “the jug had been stolen from the training quarters,” the author tossed in this whopper:
The jug had gained a place in the hearts of the Michigan players and rooters that could not be replaced. It was…the rabbit’s foot and the seven or eleven point combination. Its loss was irreparable and its presence in the hands of the enemy was a calamity.
I love that one. A beloved water jug (that we know was purchased right before the game) was a good luck charm with players and fans? And its disappearance triggered a calamity!?
This next one is bizarre. Published by the Associated Press 1925, this version claims the trophy rivalry started when Minnesota replaced a broken Wolverine jug after the 1903 game, but advised they would deliver it only on the condition that Michigan beat them on the field (at some unknown point in the future):
The hard part about trying to uncover the truth about something like a football rivalry trophy is that those involved (and perhaps the writers themselves) feel they have license if not a duty to embellish the story for the benefit of the rivalry. It’s not like they are stretching the details of an old game or player—it’s a prize that’s a subplot to the actual game and it’s meant to be fun. But when you’re trying to uncover the truth a century later it can cause some challenges.
But sifting through these fabricated stories did help me with my research. While Williams clearly made up some of his story about the jug, he also completely left out one critical detail that remains in jug lore today. Williams didn’t mention anything about Fielding Yost writing or asking that Minnesota return the jug sometime after the 1903 game. Wouldn’t that be an important detail for the Minnesota coach to mention, especially if the letter came from his counterpart across the sideline?
This caused me to wonder: Did Yost actually write to Minnesota asking for the return of the team’s water jug sometime after the 1903 game? Read here for the analysis and the answer.