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.
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). .
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:
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, Oscar Munson, the man who found the jug back in 1903, wrote his own version of events surrounding the origin of the rivalry. 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.
Even if Yost was a wildly frugal man, as Lloyd Carr has joked/suggested over the years, 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:
After expenses per the November 4, 1903 Detroit Free Press, Michigan netted $13,000. At thirty cents a pop, Yost could have used that money to buy over 40,000 Red Wing 5 gallon jugs.
Let’s say Yost did care about leaving the jug for whatever reason. Maybe he indeed was wildly cheap. Or perhaps he was bitter about the roughness of the 6-6 tie. Or maybe he heard through his friends in Minneapolis that the Gophers kept the jug and knowing how cocky Yost was, he didn’t like it. 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?
The other side the letter myth is Cooke, as the story goes, telling Yost he’d need to “win it back”. First off, on the longshot Yost a) knew about the jug being missing, and b) cared enough to write a letter to want it back, it’s doubtful that Cooke would be so bold as to tell Yost to pound sand. Even if he did, Minnesota and Michigan didn’t have another game scheduled in the near future (and as we know, didn’t meet for another 6 years). When was Yost supposed to have the chance to “win it back”?
So that leads us back to Munson and Cooke’s accounts. Let’s say Munson and Cooke in their writings conspired to tilt the origins of the rivalry to a Minnesota-created tradition, that is, to dismiss Yost’s role. Fine. But check out the account of Tommy Roberts, the Michigan equipment manager who bought the jug in 1903. Roberts 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 back in 1903 (he was the equipment manager fergodsakes), certainly HE would have been aware if Yost wanted it back. Heck, he probably would have gotten a earful from the Old Man. Yet Roberts mentions no desire from Michigan or Yost or anyone 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 of the birth of this tradition. 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 pep rally 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. All this said, shouldn’t we consider Cooke’s own account the most believable?
Funny, the man who is conspicuously quiet about the whole thing is Yost—the man never was silent, seemingly about anything. Check out the stacks of letters, records and clippings in the Yost files at the U-M Bentley Library. That said, would it shock anyone if decades later he spun a yarn to a nearby reporter, recalling how much it hurt when he realized he left that five gallon jug behind in 1903?
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