The story of the origins of the Little Brown Jug rivalry is being retold and again this week.  I’ve maintained for the past few years that the idea that Yost wrote a letter to Minnesota asking that the jug be returned is not only silly, there’s plenty of evidence to backup that it’s just false.  To those just tuning in this week for some jug knowledge here’s the basic breakdown of what really happened, and further, why the idea that Yost wrote a letter to get the crock back is far-fetched at best.

Warning: to those who cherish the idea that Yost wrote a letter demanding the return of The Little Brown Jug and was subsequently told he’d need to “win it back”—avert your eyes.

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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 oftrepeated 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:

jug1Photo: 1932 Michiganensian (U-M Yearbook)

  • 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.

jug3 New  York Times, August 22, 1932

  • 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.

hatch and munson

On the eve of the Saturday’s great battle for the Little Brown Jug I swung by WKTA 1050AM for segment this morning.  We talked all things jug—history, what to do with the scores, and so much more.

We even had a special call from Jil Gordon, the artist who paints the scores of the crock if Michigan wins.  (Above that’s Oscar Munson on the left, the man who found the jug in 1903, and on the right longtime Michigan equipment manager Henry Hatch).

Here’s the audio from this morning:


Go Blue!  Retain the Jug!

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While Fielding H. Yost tends to get top billing when discussing the origins of the Jug rivalry, the fact is that Minnesota AD L.J. “Doc” Cooke is really the man primarily responsible for creating this tradition.

Michigan’s student assistant Tommy Roberts bought the jug and was probably responsible for leaving it behind in Minnesota in 1903.  Gopher custodian Oscar Munson found the jug sometime after the game, and brought it to Cooke (and they applied its first paint job).  So without Munson and Roberts, of course, the trophy doesn’t exist but it is primarily Cooke (not Yost) who is responsible for the teams playing for the jug each year since 1909.  Some of this has been published elsewhere (GoBlueWolverine, Ann Ann Observer, etc.) but it hasn’t made it here yet.

The first thing to understand is how wild and varied the documented stories of the origin of the Jug rivalry were in the first couple decades.  I covered this in this LBJ Lore post.  You’ve got Minnesota coach Doc Williams right after the 1909 game saying that Michigan in 1903 carried the jug with them all year (false), painted scores upon it (false) and that Minnesota “willfully stole the jug” (false) that season.   In 1919 the Minnesota Tribune wrote that the Gophers originally stole it from a gym in Ann Arbor (false) prompting Michigan to write for its return (false).  In 1920 the Michigan Daily suggested the jug was a good luck charm for Michigan during 1903 (false).  It was the Williams quote, since it was offered up right after the 1909 game, that really got me wondering if the whole “Yost wrote Minnesota demanding his jug back” had any teeth.   I dug further.

In 2004, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published a piece called “Minnesota Myths” that took a fresh look as some of the fabled traditions in the state. In it writer Joel Rippel brought to light an alternate explanation of the birth of this rivalry documented by Doc Cooke himself. A paper written in 1929 by the former athletic director offered a less sexy version of how the rivalry actually started.   I contacted the Minnesota library and obtained a copy of what appears to be an early draft of Cooke’s memoir containing several handwritten edits.

In A brief history of the Little Brown Jug, there is no mention of a letter, wire or request of any kind from Michigan or Yost. Cooke reveals that he and Gopher captain John McGovern simply met prior to the 1909 game and decided that the jug “might be material to build up a fine tradition.” Cooke writes that McGovern brought the proposal to Yost and Michigan’s captain who “immediately approved the idea, and so the tradition was inaugurated.”


In A brief history.. Cooke wrote that “a rope loop was tied to the handle of the jug and the jug was suspended from a hook above my desk, where it remained unmolested for six years…”

I found this awesome photo at the Minnesota Library of Cooke’s office inside the Minnesota Armory dated to 1905, showing the would-be trophy suspended from the ceiling, validating at least part of Cooke’s story:


This is backed up by a piece in the February 14, 1904 Detroit Free Press describing the placement of Cooke’s souvenir:

Minnesota Jug Trophy

Demonstrating the willingness of writers to embellish the jug story, consider that Cooke’s own 1929 paper was spiced up a bit when reprinted in the 1941 Minnesota game program. What was a polite proposal in the ‘29 draft (It was suggested that the jug might be material to build up a fine tradition between the two institutions, and John was appointed a committee of one to present the matter to Mr. Yost…) evolved into a fiery instruction from Cooke to McGovern in the ’41 program (“You tell that Michigan captain that they can have their jug back if they beat us tomorrow.”) Now we’re talking!

But don’t just take Cooke’s version.   In 1953, around the time of the 50th anniversary of the famous 1903 game, Munson himself wrote a version of the origins. Shortly after finding the jug he asked Cooke if the jug should be returned to Yost to which Cooke barked back, “Heck no, make him win it back.”  When the Wolverines returned six years later, Munson recalled this scene in Cooke’s office:

We didn’t play Michigan until 1909. The day before the game, Coach Yost came into Doc’s office for a visit as usual. The first thing he saw was that old water jug hanging in the ceiling. “What’s that?” he asked Doc. He told him it was the water jug Michigan had left behind six years ago. ‘That’s the first time I heard about that,’ laughed Yost. Doc suggested Michigan should try to win it back and it was all right with Yost.”

Munson basically retold the same version in a 1960 interview (he died not too long after).  “When Yost came to see Cooke [in 1909] he saw the jug.  They decided to let it go back and forth with the winner of the game.”

There’s much to believe about Munson’s words. It’s not surprising, given that the jug was purchased right before the 1903 game, that Yost didn’t remember or that he hadn’t even heard about the souvenir Minnesota confiscated six years earlier.  I mean, why would he really care?  There many reasons why Yost wouldn’t bother to write or wire Minnesota about a missing 5 gallon jug his manager purchased right before the game even if he knew he left it behind.  Given that the crock cost around 30 cents and game tickets went for around $2-$3 that season, it was hardly an item of value.

To put the value in context consider this:  According to the November 3, 1903 edition of the Minnesota Daily, the gross proceeds from the game were in excess nearly $31,000, to be split between the teams:

1903 Minnesota Game Receipts

After expenses per the November 4, 1903 Detroit Free Press, Michigan netted $13,000.   At thirty cents a pop, Yost could use that money to buy over 40,000 Red Wing jugs!

Let’s say Yost did care about leaving the jug for whatever reason.  Maybe he was cheap.  Really cheap in this case.  Was Yost expecting Minnesota to drop it in the mail or put it on a train back to Ann Arbor (“be extra careful with it Doc–it’s fragile!”)?  How much would that shipment cost?

So let’s say Munson and Cooke in their writings conspired to tilt the origins of the rivalry to a Minnesota-created tradition.  Fine.  But check out the account of Tommy Roberts, the man who bought the jug in 1903 who published his version of the origins of the rivalry sometime around that 50th anniversary as well.  Not only did he confirm that the crock was bought in Minneapolis (which wasn’t widely known until then), Roberts recalled that it was Minnesota who “wrote” to Michigan before the 1909 game, saying, “we have your Little Brown Jug, come and win it.”

Assuming Roberts was at least partially responsible for leaving the jug behind, certainly he would have been aware if Yost wanted it back.  Heck, he probably would have gotten a earful.  Yet Roberts mentions no desire from Michigan or Yost to have the jug returned. Instead, as he writes, it was a one-way challenge from the Gophers in the days leading up to the 1909 game.

I found other writings that support Cooke’s version. Dr. Willie Kerr Foster, a gym coach at Minnesota from 1905-1929, included an account of Cooke’s role in the jug rivalry in his paper The Doctor Cooke that I Knew.  Kerr says Doc was merely looking for some material for a speech prior to the 1909 Michigan-Minnesota rematch, and this sparked the idea of playing for the jug. Kerr portrays Cooke as a humble man who never “wished any credit for the part he played in establishing this marvelous college tradition,” perhaps explaining why Cooke may have offered captain McGovern a joint role in his 1929 memoir.   The Minnesota Daily archives reveal that Cooke indeed flashed the jug at a pep rally-like event just before the 1909 game.

While there are subtle distinctions in the Munson and Roberts accounts, there’s much to believe about Cooke’s version. Applying a bit of Occam’s razor here, given a bevy of romantic explanations of how the rivalry began starting with coach Henry Williams’ quotes after the 1909 game, from the Minneapolis Tribune suggesting it was stolen from Ann Arbor, to the 1920 Michigan Daily version of the good luck charm, to today’s version of Yost pleading for the return of the precious jug, Cooke’s story is the simplest and the most reasonable.  Plus, almost every account, accepted or unaccepted, agrees that the challenge to play for the crock came from Cooke, so shouldn’t we consider Cooke’s own account the most believable?

Funny, the man who is conspicuously quiet about the whole thing is Yost, who otherwise never seemed to keep his mouth shut – whether to the press or in stacks of letters (many archived at the U-M Bentley Historical Museum).   That said, would it shock anyone if decades later Yost spun a yarn to a nearby reporter, recalling how much it hurt when he realized he left that five gallon jug behind in 1903?

Related: Little Brown Jug Lore


This blogger rejoices over the news tonight.

So does this guy (below).  That’s Louis J. "Doc" Cooke, longtime Minnesota administrator who started Little Brown Jug rivalry by suggesting the teams play for the crock in 1909:

cook 30s 40s

If you’re not ready to rejoice, take in the entire Little Brown Jug lore series:

Part I: What Really Happened in the 1930s
Part II: Spinning Myths
Part III: Getting it Right
Part IV: 2013: A Space Quandary
Part V: Red Wing Roots
Part VI: Is the Greatest Trophy in College Sports a Fake?
Part VII: Open Questions


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