When I started my research on the Little Brown Jug earlier this year, I created a list of questions/facts I wanted to validate or at least understand a little better. One of the items concerned this bit of jug history that’s been part of Jug lore for quite a while, here republished [in 2009] on Michigan official football site during the time:
This little detail is oft–repeated in recaps of Jug history (even in Angelique’s new book), but I wondered if anyone ever bothered to find out what actually went down over this stretch. Having written on this era (see various eBay Watch pieces on the early 1930s or in Hail to the Victors 2008), I knew the Gophers and Wolverines fielded powerful squads and these contests were fiercely fought. Did the teams just accept that the victor would not get to carry the jug off the field after these games? How could the jug be gone for four years?
What I discovered was a wild tale and properly pieced together what actually happened. Here’s a timeline:
- Mid-September 1931. The drama actually started in 1931, not 1930 as the official history goes. The jug vanished from the Administration building (now where you’ll find the athletic Ticket Office) in the mid-September in 1931.
- October 29, 1931. The New York Times reports that the jug is recovered.
- October 30, 1931. The Times backs off the story from the previous day, reporting that the jug found was a “poor imitation.”
- November 19, 1931. The week of the Minnesota game, a car pulled up to the Tuomy Hills gas station (now the Bearclaw Coffee at the corner of Washtenaw and Stadium) with four men wearing “dark goggles”. One of the disguised passengers rolled out a freshly painted jug onto the pavement and it is scooped up by gas station attendant K.D. Smith. Here’s Smith looking a bit puzzled in this photo republished in the 1932 Michiganensian:
- November 20-21, 1931 – The next day, U-M athletic department officials announce that the gas station jug is authentic, but many skeptics are afoot including Ann Arbor Daily News writer Mill Marsh who after inspecting the crock labels it “a clever imitation.” On the field, Michigan defeats the Gophers 6-0 and retains the jug.
- November 18, 1932. Michigan team goes to Minneapolis to renew the rivalry. Talk rages around town about the jug the Wolverines tote from Ann Arbor. The legendary Fielding Yost makes the trip to the Twin Cities. When grilled about the authenticity of the jug, Yost tells reporters, “Why sure, it’s the real jug,” adding, “Take a look at it. Does it look like a phoney?” To the skeptics, he explained, “It looks differently than it used to because it’s been painted, but it’s the same jug just the same.” Phil Pack echoed Yost’s assurances insisting, “So far as I am concerned that is the little brown jug.”
- Some weren’t buying it. As one Associated Press writer put it, “Pack bought a substitute and had it painted to look like the original, but that fooled no one.”
- The man who found the jug in 1903, Oscar Munson, was unimpressed with Michigan’s assurances. “They’ve been passing a phoney off on us since 1927,” he snarled. Munson also thought he knew the one responsible for the crock’s disappearance: Yost himself. “He wanted the jug for himself and he took it. It was never lost.”
- November 19, 1932. In Michigan’s final game of the season, the Wolverines prevail 3-0. Michigan, Yost and Harry Kipke return to Ann Arbor with the jug. Later Michigan is declared national champion thanks to the mathematical formula used to settle the matter those days: the Dickinson System.
- August 21, 1933. A different jug appears in Ann Arbor, this time “in a clump of bushes near the medical building” on East University. Yost confirms this is the real jug (effectively admitting he tried to pass off the gas station jug as the real deal) and asked that, “the person who had the jug the two years it was missing,” to contact him and explain what happened.
- November 15, 1933. In the days leading up to the 1933 game, Minnesota’s Oscar Munson, the custodian who originally found ‘The Michigan Jug’ in 1903, remains skeptical about the newly found jug and even suggests that Yost planted it in the bushes on East U.
- Yost essentially admitted he deceived the people of Minneapolis the year prior by accepting its authenticity and telling reporters, “I hope that some day the person who had the jug the two years it was missing will write me a letter and tell me the story of what was done with it while it was gone. I’d like to have its complete story.” Despite Yost’s plea, it doesn’t appear anyone stepped up to explain why it was taken or better yet, why they decided to dump it in those bushes.
- The chief skeptic, Munson, stepped in once again to question the whole story and can you blame him? Surely Yost’s assurances that the jug toted to Minneapolis the season prior now gnawed at Oscar. “They’ve been shoving a spurious water container on us for years,” he told reporters. Munson suggested that if the real jug was found near shrubbery, “they were Mr. Yost’s bushes.”
- Phil Pack, who maybe should have kept quiet at this point, couldn’t resist firing back at Munson. “Our friend Oscar hasn’t even seen the jug since 1929, when Minnesota turned it back.” Pack added, “The jug is now in the vault, and it won’t come out of hiding until and if Minnesota beats Michigan. Mr. Munson, now a venerable gentleman, may not live to see it back in Minneapolis, and he will have to show a pass signed by President Roosevelt to get within ten feet of it until then.”
- November 18, 1933. The game ends in a 0-0 tie. Michigan retains the jug and is once again named national champion after the season.
- November 3, 1934. The Gophers finally get it done, crushing Gerald Ford and the horrific 1934 Wolverines 34-0 in Minneapolis. The jug is returned to Munson who later confirms he’s satisfied that the jug (which he understandably hides away!) is the real deal.
The Real Story: By pulling together these pieces, it appears as though today’s official Michigan athletic department line on the disappearance is a jumbled version of the truth, mixing a few of the events. Instead of being missing from 1930 to 1934, it looks like the trophy was gone between September 1931 and August 1933. And 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.
As an aside, the culprit for a portion of the confusion over the story might fall on the Minnesota media department. The 1943 Gopher game program included this caption under a republished photo of K.D. Smith at the gas station, and perhaps that’s where this historical nugget had its origins:
While this clarifies/corrects one piece of jug history, many other remained including a key question: Was the jug that was found in 1933 indeed the “real deal”, that is, the jug that was left in Minnesota in 1903 and first played for 100 years ago in 1909? More on that here.