I guess I'm behind the times, but I just caught the 2010 documentary The Last Play at Shea on Showtime, and I was blown away by this film, which melds the seemingly disparate stories of Shea Stadium, the Mets, Billy Joel, the Beatles and New York City itself into a coherent—and quite moving—portrait.
The origins of Shea Stadium go back to the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers for Los Angeles in 1959. New York City "master builder" Robert Moses was anxious to get a baseball team back in New York for his new stadium, to be constructed in Queens. Enter attorney William Shea, who tried to bring existing franchise teams to town, but they all refused. His threat to establish a third major league (the Continental League) caused Major League Baseball to blink, allowing two new teams into the National League, one of which became known as the New York Mets.
And they were terrible. Fortunately for them they had a built-in audience: former Dodger fans who were now excited to root for their new New York team, no matter how bad it might be. When Shea finally opened in Spring 1964, after many construction setbacks, it was packed throughout the season with enthusiastic attendees.
Happily, the Mets' fortunes began to improve and they're now, of course, one of the League's leading teams, with the bankroll required to get the players they want. And after 9/11, Shea served as a relief center. Ten days later, Mike Piazza hit a home run against the Braves in the first game since the tragedy, providing a sense of healing for traumatized New Yorkers.
And there wasn't just baseball played there. The New York Jets football team played there from 1964 to 1983. And in one unprecedented season, two baseball teams (the Mets and the Yankees) and two football teams (the Jets and the Giants) all called Shea home.
Shea also hosted many musical events, and much of the documentary is devoted to that aspect, including the Beatles' first U.S. appearance in 1965 and culminating with Billy Joel's closing concerts in July of 2008. The film tells the story of the stadium, paralleling its history with Joel's career, and it works beautifully. After all, what singer represents New York better than Joel? My favorite Joel album is 1977's "The Stranger," and it has my favorite Joel song—"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." Many interviewees in the film say they personally know a Brenda and Eddie (the high school sweethearts referred to in the lyrics).
Oh...and the Pope showed up at Shea in 1979.
For those of a certain age (ahem), watching Last Play is like watching an encapsulation of your life. The footage of the Beatles concert is amazingly good—I'm used to seeing contrasty black and white kinescope with almost inaudible sound, but the Shea stuff is in color and looks great. McCartney reminisces about the crowd being so carried away and vociferous that their music couldn't even be heard, so they just went a little nuts themselves and had fun. You can see it. At one point, Lennon even stops playing the keyboard and just drags his elbow back and forth across it.
On August 6, 1970, the day-long Festival for Peace fundraiser (organized by Peter, Paul & Mary's Peter Yarrow) was held at Shea, with such legendary acts as Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paul Simon, Johnny Winter, Steppenwolf, and Miles Davis, among others. Amazingly, despite the list of high-caliber performers—who all donated their time—no footage or audio of the concert has ever surfaced.
And in 1983, the red-hot Police played Shea, and Sting admits in the film that it was while he was onstage at the stadium he made up his mind to quit the band and go out on his own. Ironically, the reunited Police closed for REM in 2007, a band which, 24 years earlier, was one of its opening acts and didn't even get a mention on the ticket.
In Last Play, Shea's history is interwoven with Billy Joel's story, which is New York through-and-through. His family moved from Manhattan to Levittown, the country's first planned community, at a time when the New York suburbs were becoming a destination for blue-collar workers who couldn't afford the high costs of the city.
And how does Joel's story intersect with that of the polarizing Robert Moses? The "master builder" had been facilitating the growth of the suburbs outside of town for years by building roads and bridges (giving birth to places like Levittown), and his motivation for placing Shea Stadium in Queens was a practical business reason: a built-in fan base.
Joel is such a hometown boy. His support of New York City is unequivocal, and he tells the story of moving away from Manhattan for a short time in the 1970s to escape bad management, only to hear West Coasters denigrate his beloved metropolis, which at the time was suffering some of its most destitute conditions. So what did he do? He moved back home and set up his company there as a gesture of support and devotion.
The city has since experienced a miraculous recovery, but even today, people say to me, "Oh, how can you love going to New York? It's so dangerous!" Give me a break. I'd much rather be alone on subway line number one than in downtown Los Angeles at midnight, I can tell you.
Joel, of course, had been at Shea many times, the last appearances being his two stadium-closing concerts in 2008 with guests Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler, Jon Mellencamp, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney. McCartney made it to the stadium by the skin of his teeth, the documentary relates, and joined Joel onstage to perform "I Saw Her Standing There" to a screaming crowd. Fittingly, the last song of the evening was "Let it Be."
Did I convince you that I'm crazy about New York? I usually make it there a couple of times a year for business, but I'd like to go a lot more frequently. In 2007, I caught a game at old Yankee Stadium before it closed in 2008, and I had the opportunity to go to Shea for the first and only time in April of 2008 for the final season. They played the Pirates—and they won!
And on that memorable final night in July, Joel told the standing-room-only audience, “They’re tearing this house down. I want to thank you for letting me do the job and keep doing it—the best job in the world.”