Brubeck and Stan the Man
Two great men defined what made mid-century America exceptional.

David Warren Brubeck


Born two weeks and 2,000 miles apart in 1920, Stanislaw Franciszek Musial and David Warren Brubeck would, decades hence, define the golden eras of the two great inventions of American culture: baseball and jazz. That they did so with utterly unconventional styles, and without once calling New York City their professional homes, is remarkable enough. More important, their almost perfectly congruent lifespans — Stan the Man died six weeks after Brubeck’s passing in December 2012 — invite reflection on the humility, decency, and deep faith that lay at the heart of their greatness, and inspired the affection of millions who mourned their passing.

To say that Brubeck and Musial were the unlikeliest of men to reach their respective pinnacles would be a stretch. Brubeck’s mother, after all, was a concert pianist who traded that calling for life as the wife of a California cattle rancher. And Musial was such a dominant high-school player in Donora, Pa., that he was drafted by and played in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system before returning to Donora High School in 1939 to receive his diploma.  But in late 1940, Musial, plagued by an arm injury that ended his budding career as a pitcher, had to be talked out of quitting baseball altogether by his minor-league manager. Across the continent, at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., Brubeck was told by a professor in his chosen major, veterinary science, to “stop wasting my time and yours” and enroll in the college conservatory. There, the more hidebound professors were scandalized that he could not read music, and approved his graduation in 1942 on the condition that he promise never to teach piano. Being drafted into the Army immediately upon graduation, Brubeck did not find the promise of immediate concern.


Musial’s circumstances in 1940 were perhaps the more precarious. He was demoted (albeit with a pay raise) to Class D Daytona Beach. Laboring there in obscurity was manager Dickie Kerr, a diminutive veteran of the “Black Sox”–scarred 1919 World Series, during which he won two games as one of the “clean” Sox. Kerr and his wife took an immediate liking to Musial and his high-school sweetheart, Lillian Labash, even standing as witnesses at their marriage on May 25 at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church. But ten weeks later, Musial suffered a devastating shoulder injury while attempting a somersault catch in left field. The injury ended his days as a pitcher (he had compiled an 18–5 record, with a 2.62 ERA that season, playing outfield only on his “rest” days), left him with a dead arm, and prompted thoughts of quitting baseball. The Kerrs took the Musials under their wing, housing them during the off-season to enable them to save expenses. Dickie Kerr drove Lil through multiple red lights to the hospital for the birth of the Musial’s first child, a son — promptly named Richard, in Kerr’s honor. And Kerr took the winter to persuade Musial of what he and Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey had seen all along — that despite his young talent as a pitcher, Musial was a born everyday player. By the end of the 1941 season, he was in the majors for good, hitting .426 with a single strikeout in a two-week stint that, had it begun sooner, might have propelled St. Louis past Brooklyn for the National League pennant. The next year, the Musial-led Cardinals won 106 games to Brooklyn’s 104 and then polished off the Yankees in five games to win the World Series.  

Years later, after reuniting with his old manager during a 1958 exhibition game in Houston, Musial bought the Kerrs a house worth perhaps $20,000 — a fifth of Musial’s salary. Kerr, who once claimed to have said that he “never got anything out of the game but what it paid me,” later told reporters, “This is the luckiest thing that ever happened in my life. I couldn’t be happier.” Musial, of course, said nothing of the gift, but the story broke shortly after he had his 3,000th hit early that season.

Brubeck’s rise was not as meteoric. He married Iola Whitlock in 1942, shortly after entering the Army. They had first met at the college radio station where she directed programs (he once told her, “I’ve been thrown out of better places than this”); on their first date at a college dance, they ditched the music, sat, and talked in his car for hours, and became engaged. “You will never be bored,” he told her. “He’s kept his promise,” she later said. Separated by war, they pursued their respective talents, she by writing and acting. Brubeck became an Army musician but also trained as an infantryman, whose Third Army unit shipped out to Europe after D-day. His musical talent perhaps saved his life: A superior officer who heard him perform at a Red Cross show on the cusp of his unit’s deployment to the Battle of the Bulge ordered him out of combat and had him organize a jazz band to boost the morale of those GIs engaged in the deadliest period of the war in the European theater.

Earlier in 1944, Brubeck had met, stateside, fellow Army bandsman Paul Desmond; by the end of the year, he created the armed forces’ first racially integrated band, The Wolfpack. Each event proved epochal. Despite the band’s success, Brubeck eschewed promotion above his PFC rank because it would have meant moving out of the barracks that housed his mates.

Discharged in 1946, he enrolled at Mills College and came under the tutelage of the prolific modernist composer Darius Milhaud, who had fled France because of his Jewish heritage. Milhaud had long had an affinity for American jazz idioms and encouraged Brubeck to employ his jazz roots in his forays into composition. Milhaud’s influence on Brubeck was at least as deep as Dickie Kerr’s on the young Stan Musial; not surprisingly, the Brubeck’s first of six children, born in 1947, was named Darius.

By 1947, Stan Musial was firmly established as the greatest player in the National League, perhaps in all of baseball. The Cardinals had won three World Series in five years, and with the exception of a year in the armed forces in 1945, he led or nearly led the league in all hitting categories from 1942 to 1946. Hobbled with appendicitis and tonsillitis — through which he played after having his appendix “frozen” — he had a “lousy” year in 1947, hitting .312 with 19 homers and 95 RBI. More important that season was the stance he took, as the star of America’s “southern” team, in embracing the arrival of Jackie Robinson. No. 42 later credited Musial as one of the players who encouraged him in that courageous first year in the majors.

Cured of his maladies, Musial in 1948 put together the greatest single season by any player before or since: a .376 batting average, 230 hits, 46 doubles, 18 triples, 39 home runs, and respective on-base and slugging percentages of .450 and .702. Were it not for Ralph Kiner’s “corner” at Forbes Field and Johnny Mize’s short porches at the Polo Grounds, he would likely have bested that pair for the home-run title (each hit 40) and won the Triple Crown as well.

Brubeck was far from basking in that kind of limelight in 1948, but the year was nonetheless a pivotal one for him. He formed his first civilian groups, an octet and a trio, and renewed his musical partnership with Paul Desmond (at the latter’s insistence). Paying gigs were few, but the nucleus of success was formed. By 1950, the Fantasy label was shipping out as many as 50,000 Brubeck recordings every three months.