Politics & Policy

Brubeck and Stan the Man

Two great men defined what made mid-century America exceptional.

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.

A diving accident in 1951 nearly took his life; upon recovery, Brubeck adopted his trademark block-chord style to compensate for lingering effects of the accident. The same year, at Iola’s urging, he patched things up with the tempestuous Desmond and invited him into the newly formed Dave Brubeck Quartet. Iola, while raising the couple’s growing family, also served as the quartet’s impresario, cleverly marketing the group to the GI-bill-infused ranks of American colleges and paving the way for the classic albums Jazz at Oberlin and, in the band’s Columbia Records debut, Jazz Goes to College. In 1954, Brubeck received the one honor he most regretted — his portrait on the cover of Time. He knew beforehand that the magazine would feature either him or Duke Ellington, and he feared racial prejudice would play a role in the selection. Ironically, he and the Duke were staying at the same hotel on the day of the magazine’s publication. When Ellington showed up at his hotel room with a copy, all Brubeck could say was, “It should have been you.”

By 1954, Musial was in the sweet spot of his career, a tremendous 13-year span begun in 1946. His fame may have been held back by the fact that he did not play in the post-war “capital of baseball”; one fan remarked on his passing that had Musial played in New York, the national pastime would have been renamed “Musialball.” But he did have his hometown Sporting News. That bible of the sport voted him the best player of the decade from 1946 to1955 — the era of Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and the early years of Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle. In hindsight, no one would quibble with that designation: Musial had 3,630 career hits, divided exactly between 1,815 at home and 1,815 away; a .331 lifetime batting average, divided fairly evenly (.336 home and .326 away); 475 home runs (252 home, 223 away) and, perhaps more impressively, 725 doubles and 177 triples; 155 home runs off fellow left-handers, including 17 off Warren Spahn, one of the greatest southpaws in history. Those who called him the most underrated figure in the history of American sports were perhaps understating their case.

Brubeck, despite cutting the first certified gold jazz album (Time Out, 1959), with its iconic track “Take Five,” was also simultaneously one of the most famous and most underrated masters of his craft. The “New York thing” did less to diminish his fame than it did his reputation with some critics who were unmoved by his West Coast vibe in the era of be-bop and “cool” jazz. Most people knew who he was; everybody could recognize “Take Five” and, perhaps, “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Jazz 101 students could expound on the innovation of the 5/4 and 9/8 time signatures that set these charts apart from the standard 4/4, 16-bar chorus structure rooted in the New Orleans foundation of jazz. But to some jazz aficionados Brubeck’s innovations were derivative, not authentic; they found his playing style bombastic, not refined, and his touch too populist and insufficiently cerebral. Brubeck’s was also the age of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and when jazz hit its popular demise with the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the 1960s, many of these impressions stuck. Jazz largely retreated into urban enclaves and further innovations in the recording studio; the influence of the popular imagination, for better or worse, waned.

What many people seem to have missed is Brubeck’s consistency and his epic mastery of the American songbook. There is much original composition on his 120 recorded albums, including some less fortunate forays into rock fusion during the 1970s. But taken as a whole — though I claim no expertise in analyzing the comprehensive catalogue — Brubeck’s recordings offer original, challenging, and at times definitive interpretations of American standard and jazz classics. His and Desmond’s renditions of “My Romance” (Rodgers) and “Somewhere” (Bernstein) know no instrumental equal; his solo take on “Where or When” (Rodgers, again), recorded for 2004’s Private Brubeck Remembers, evokes the entire era this wonderful album sought to commemorate. One hopes this huge and underappreciated component of his legacy will be discovered and rediscovered in that “popular imagination” without which jazz would be left to its insularity. And as for the “bombastic” block-chord style of the quartet’s classic years — just try sitting still through the last few minutes of “Blue Rondo.” One might as well knock Musial for his corkscrew batting stance, described by White Sox Hall of Famer Ted Lyons as “a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops were coming.”

Clearly, lives in professions as different as outfielder–first baseman and jazz pianist–composer can encompass only so many parallels. Brubeck, after all, recorded masterpiece albums in his eighties and delighted live audiences up to his 92nd year of life; Musial had to be content to hit a mere .330 in his 42nd. (Musial did delight audiences with his harmonica rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” well into his eighties.) Musial retired in 1963 to the active but comfortable life of restaurateur and good-will ambassador for the game he loved; four years later, Brubeck began the second phase of his career, upon disbanding his classic eponymous quartet. But the virtues that brought Dave Brubeck and “Stan the Man” (a sobriquet bestowed by the respectful fans of Brooklyn) to define American exceptionalism at the heart of the American century never tarnished, and never left them. As related by Bob Costas at Musial’s funeral, a tearful Mickey Mantle once told him that Stan Musial was a better ballplayer than he was “because he was a better man than I was.” Brubeck, too, stood out in a profession perhaps even more known than baseball for the human failings and addictions of some of its brightest lights.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in their quiet stands for racial equality. Costas recalled the All Star locker room in the mid-50s, when Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson sat together in a quiet corner, playing cards, ignored by their white teammates. Musial simply walked up to the group and said, “Deal me in.” A few years later, when bassist Eugene Wright joined the “classic” Brubeck Quartet of Time Out, West Side Story, and Bossa Nova USA, Brubeck insisted on equal treatment in meals and accommodations wherever the group played, and ensured star billing for his talented sideman. His concert musical, The Real Ambassadors, co-written with Iola, focused on themes of racial justice.

On Musial’s death, Willie Mays said, “I knew Stan very well. He used to take care of me at All-Star games, all 24 of them. He was a true gentleman who understood the race thing and did all he could. Again, a true gentleman on and off the field — I never heard anybody say a bad word about him, ever.” Jazz critic Ted Gioia, speaking a few years before Brubeck’s death, might have been speaking of Musial’s musical doppelgänger: “One of the things that’s most striking about Dave is his basic decency as a human being. And this comes across in the music. His music does have this embracing warmth. Similarly, if you look at Dave’s career outside of life onstage, as a family man, what he did for civil rights, you get a sense of that same warmth.”

Might that warmth, though, have reflected a greater fire within? In the case of Musial and Brubeck, there can be little doubt. Stan Musial had the lifelong simple faith of the child of God he was baptized as in 1920. Caught by his manager entering the team hotel at 7:00 a.m. one Sunday during spring training, he was heatedly asked where he had been. “Morning Mass,” he replied. He reported that his greatest thrill in life was meeting an even more notable Pole, Pope John Paul II, in Rome (“I’m also a Cardinal,” he reminded some American priests who recognized him) and during the pontifical visit to St. Louis in 1987. His devotion to his wheelchair-bound wife Lil was legendary. As youngsters helped fold her wheelchair into the trunk of his car after Sunday Mass, out from the same trunk would pop signed souvenirs for them. His legacy of faith is surely his greatest gift to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Brubeck’s path to faith was, like the man and his music, more modernist. World War II provoked spiritual questioning. His mother had led a Presbyterian church choir for which he played, but he was of no particular faith. Commissioned by the editor of Our Sunday Visitor to compose a Mass, Brubeck dutifully delivered To Hope! A Mass of Celebration, only to be confronted by a priest asking why no “Our Father” had been included. After being informed that this was what he knew as the “Lord’s Prayer,” he refused the request to make additions to the completed work and packed off to the Caribbean for a long-postponed family vacation. “So the first night . . . I dreamt the ‘Our Father,’” he later said, recalling that he hopped out of bed to write down what he could recall from the dream. He resolved not only to add the piece but to become a Catholic. He insisted that he did not “convert”; he was nothing before, and he simply “became” a Catholic. (Not ignoring those Presbyterian roots, he played several times at architect Ralph Adams Cram’s masterwork, the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, where I first saw him play.) He wrote more sacred music, including the entrance theme for John Paul’s 1987 Mass at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The lyricism that some found missing in his earlier work fully blossomed in his later years, reflecting further a spiritual depth that was, in truth, never far from his playing.

I saw only Brubeck play, perhaps not in his prime, but it was more than good enough. There were some, many thousands I suspect, who grew up watching and admiring these singular men when both were in their primes. Thousands more, I hope, might in this age of cynicism find inspiration in the complementary lives of two men who enriched our national fabric more than either would have been comfortable to acknowledge.

Edward R. Grant is an attorney residing in Arlington, Va., and vice chairman of Americans United for Life. 


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