Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Solving the history of the Little Brown Jug

There's really only one reason the Michigan-Minnesota "rivalry" has been any more relevant over the past 20 years than Michigan-Northwestern or Michigan-Indiana. That reason is this thing:

Depending on your definition of "oldest" and "trophy," it might be the oldest* rivalry trophy in college sports. It has some sentimental value ... or so it seems.

When I was still religiously updating my old Forever Saturday blog, I linked to a Pulitzer Prize-worthy seven-part piece from unofficial Michigan football historian Greg at MVictors about the background of the jug and how the original story has been Wikipedia-ized to the point that nobody really knows exactly what happened throughout its 100-ish years of existence; for example, Lloyd Carr and a lot of people in the Michigan athletic department have said that the jug that changes hands nowadays is just a replica of the original, which isn't the commonly spread story.

That story goes something like this: Back in the olden days of aught-three, when water still had to be moved from place to place in jug-type things, Michigan bought a jug for a game in Minnesota because Fielding Yost didn't trust the water supply. The game ended early in a 6-6 tie when fans rushed the field, and Michigan bailed for safety reasons while leaving the jug behind. When Yost wrote a letter to try to get the jug back, Minnesota responded along the lines of "come and take it," and they've been playing semi-regularly ever since, with the jug going to the winner each year and the score being recorded on the side of it. The only blip was when the jug went missing from 1930 to 1934, at which point it was found by a gas-station attendant in some bushes in Ann Arbor (again, this is the official version). Side note: The number of things in this paragraph that seem hilariously outdated is mind-boggling.

So ... that's very much a fairy-tale story, and most of it's true. By definition, "most" is not "all."

An interesting-but-not-revelatory part of the MVictors research was that the three-year disappearance was actually a two-year disappearance from 1931 to 1933, and it wasn't found by a gas-station attendant but by the groundskeeper of Ferry Field (the super-early version of Michigan Stadium). The official version of the story apparently was compiled with a bunch of slight discrepancies and embellishments, including that one (obscure history FTW).

The really interesting part was obviously the research into whether the jug that changes hands today is the Little Brown Jug or the Little Brown Jug (MADE IN CHINA). Honestly, I found it remarkable that nobody at the school seemed to know for sure -- the SID statement was "we just don't know" -- and even the people who had been around forever (like Carr and ancient equipment manager Jon Falk) disagreed about it. I gotta give Greg some serious props for not just going with the depressing "I guess we'll never know for sure" line, instead gathering absurd amounts of information and then going to physically inspect the jug itself, which takes some freakin' diligence.

Here's the smoking-gun photo, with a photo of the original jug superimposed on a photo of the current one:

Pretty close, yes? Like kinda maybe exactly the same? And to resolve any of the "kinda maybe" uncertainty, the jug was then taken to a master artisan at Henry Ford Village for an examination of the paint, the material, the handle, etc. -- this was a thorough investigation.

Here's another fantastic photo (the one on the left has the underlying layer of paint enhanced for visual purposes):

That pointy-M logo was what Minnesota used waaayyy back in the early 1920s, and the fact that it can still be seen under the current logo is significant: The jug that'll be on the field Saturday is at least 90 years old, and if it predates the 1930s craziness, it's highly likely that it's the original.

After weighing the evidence I’m comfortable concluding that the trophy tucked away in Ann Arbor today dates at least to the mid-1920s. Is it the same Little Brown Jug that was left behind in 1903 and handed back to Fielding Yost over a century ago in 1909? In my opinion, the evidence points to a strong possibility that today’s jug is indeed the real deal.

The alternative would've saddened me in a "finding out Santa isn't real" way; it doesn't really change anything, but it does because it changes the way you look at/think about it. Replicas don't have much sentimental value.

Anyway, I'm hoping I didn't steal too much from the original piece. Given that it was seven parts long and included gobs of historical research and references along with a section covering the unanswered questions I didn't even mention, I don't think I did. And I highly recommend the whole thing, especially if you care at all about century-old traditions and whatnot (and if you have enough of a passion for college football that you're reading this blog, you probably do). Link goes here.

*Arizona and Arizona State played for the Territorial Cup back in 1899, so that's kind of the oldest rivalry trophy. The qualifier: That was just a one-time award and didn't become a winner-gets-it trophy until 2001. To me, that one game 112 years ago doesn't really count. Feel free to argue.


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