Sept. 26, 2011
By Greg Dooley
The Little Brown Jug has made many trips back and forth between Ann Arbor and Minneapolis since Michigan and Minnesota first played for it in 1909, but do you know that 80 years ago the jug actually disappeared? It's true.
In September 1931 the jug mysteriously vanished from its home inside the U-M Administration building. News of the trophy's disappearance made headlines and triggered a frantic search to recover it before the Minnesota game later that year.
The search was headed by Phil Pack, U-M's public relations man who chased leads around town, including a tip that led him to a local cider mill. Beyond the donuts and cider he may have consumed on that visit, Pack's search was fruitless.
The week of the Minnesota game the Ann Arbor News reported that the following note was etched in the Michigan locker room:
- If Minnesota defeats Michigan Saturday, the Gophers will be disappointed if they do not obtain the little brown jug. Let's not disappoint them. Let's win the game and that will give us another year in which to find the lost jug.
The Dark Goggle Gang
But just as hope seemed lost there was a major breakthrough. At around 7:15 p.m. on the Thursday before the game, a car pulled up to the two-level gas station at the corner of Washtenaw and what was then Jackson Avenue (that stretch of road was later renamed Stadium Boulevard).
According to the news accounts, four men wearing "dark goggles" and "hats pulled down over their eyes" inside a large Cadillac stopped and rolled out what appeared to be the Little Brown Jug. As they sped off, K.D. Smith, an attendant at the gas station, scooped up the jug and later posed for local cameramen who raced to the scene.
The original report in the Michigan Daily prepared Thursday evening reported that Pack "was not at all convinced the jug found is the original." But in what appears to be a last-minute update to the story before hitting the presses, the Daily article was appended with a bulletin in which Pack announced that he was becoming "more and more convinced that the jug was the original."
Others weren't convinced. Mill Marsh, sportswriter for the Ann Arbor News, wrote, "An inspection of the jug today reveals that it is a clever imitation." He pointed out that the color on the Minnesota side seemed to be the wrong shade of maroon and concluded this was not the original jug, "and Minnesota should be thus informed." Other than the color, skeptics were fed by the fact that the jug had a fresh coat of paint, some of which came off when the Dark Goggle Gang rolled it out onto the pavement.
When they finally played the game, Harry Kipke's men prevailed 6-0 over the Gophers and according to Marsh, were "spared the embarrassment" of presenting an imitation jug. The 1931-32 Michiganensian recapped the incident and suggested, "Whether the real jug had been juggled for a phony is an unsolved enigma."
Does it Look Like a Phony?
In 1932, the Wolverines arrived in Minnesota with the gas station jug in tow. According to the local papers, "talk of the genuineness or phoneyness of the jug waxed hot in barber shops and fraternity houses."
The media wanted answers, but legendary Michigan coach Fielding Yost "didn't even wink" when asked about the authenticity of the crock. "Why sure, it's the real jug. Take a look at it," suggested Yost. "Does it look like a phony?"
Once again the media wasn't sold. One Associated Press writer summed it up bluntly, writing, "Pack bought a substitute and had it painted to look like the original, but that fooled no one."
Oscar Munson, the Minnesota custodian who found the jug in 1903 after the famous 6-6 tie, wasn't buying it either and he even suggested Yost was the thief.
"He wanted the jug for himself and he took it," Munson explained. "It was never lost."
But Munson wouldn't get his hands on the jug as Michigan prevailed 3-0 that Saturday. Harry Kipke's men left Minneapolis with more than the suspicious jug -- the Wolverines finished the season undefeated and were named the 1931 national champions.
As the 1933 school year approached there was another major event in this mystery. On Aug. 21 another jug appeared in Ann Arbor, this time found "in a clump of bushes near the medical building" on East University. It seems a gentleman named Al Thomas was watering some shrubs when he spotted the jug. He promptly returned it to the athletic offices.
From Michigan's standpoint, this was the real jug. Yost effectively admitted he deceived the people of Minneapolis the year prior by accepting its authenticity. He told reporters, "I hope that someday 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." Despite Yost's plea, no one stepped up to explain what happened.
The chief skeptic, Oscar Munson, once again questioned the whole story.
"They've been shoving a spurious water container on us for years," he told reporters. He further suggested that if the real jug was found under some shrubs, "they were Mr. Yost's bushes."
Back in Ann Arbor, media man Phil Pack laughed off Munson's accusations and even shot back, "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 10 feet of it until then."
After the scoreless tie later that year, Michigan retained the jug. Minnesota finally won the trophy back the following season when the Gophers hammered the Wolverines 34-0 in front of 59,000 fans in Minneapolis in 1934. When he finally got his hands on the jug, Munson hid it away.
Ever since, the equipment manager from each team has locked the Little Brown Jug away somewhere safe with the hopes that the five-gallon crock will never disappear again.