Sunday, November 21, 2004

Recently, on the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) list-serv, there was a series of posts regarding the origins of baseball terms in everyday life, including a few on the term "out of left field". To be completely honest, I'd never bothered to contemplate how this phrase came to be, but since it is the title of my blog, I thought I'd explore it further. The discussion kicked off with this inquisitive post from Bill Rubinstein:

Regarding the posting on whether baseball terms are taking hold outside of the USA, the phrase "coming from left field" or "out of left field" - meaning, usually, something or someone odd or unexpected, is in pretty common use in Britain. When you think of it, this is a very strange phrase - what is so notable about something which comes from or out of left field?
Skip McAfee was the first to respond, offering two very logical theories on the origin of the phrase:

Prof. W.D. Rubinstein wondered "what is so notable about something which comes from, or out of, left field". There are two theories to explain how LF got to be the metaphoric location for oddness:

1) The phrase was an insult heaped on kids who were stupid enough to buy LF seats in Yankee Stadium, which for many years would have put them far away from a right fielder named Babe Ruth. "When I was in my teens, living in the Bronx, we kids were always most anxious to get our seats in the right field where we would be closest to Babe Ruth, so I suppose anybody in the left field was far out." (David Shulman, quoted in William Safire's "I Stand Corrected", 1984)

2) The phrase was a specific reference to the Neuropsychiatric Institute, a mental hospital in back of LF in the old West Side Park in Chicago. "When someone said that one was 'out in left field', the implication was that one was behaving like the occupants of the Neuropsychiatric Institute, which was literally out in left field." (physician Gerald M. Eisenberg, quoted in Safire)

However, right field has often been depicted as the place to deposit the odd player. Ron Fimrite ("San Francisco Chronicle", April 28, 1969) observed: "There was but one position to which the clods, the kids with glasses, the little guys, the sissies, the ones that got good grades, the kids who played with girls, were exiled. That would be right field, the Siberia of my youth. Right field was the back of the bus, the slow-learners class, the children's department, a sideshow." Hence, anyone directed to play right field, would have given anything to be "out in left field".
While an interesting tidbit, this last paragraph about right field being the haven of the oddball isn't really relevant to the discussion surrounding the origin of the phrase. The obvious explanation as to why the weaker player patrolled right field rather than left field is that, at lower levels of competition (i.e. Little League, Senior League, Babe Ruth), right-handed hitters dominate. Undisciplined right-handed hitters tend to pull the ball to left field the majority of the time. Therefore, the weaker defensive player would be positioned in right field.

At the professional level, and higher amateur levels, left-handed hitters, and hitters who can hit to all fields, are more common, making right field just as important as left field. In fact, due to the requirement of needing a strong arm to throw to third base, right field, at higher levels of competition, is actually the more important defensive position.

An additional comment is made by John Hissrich, who, while acknowledging the validity of McAfee's theories, offers a suggestion of his own:

The best guess (not good enough to be a theory) I could come up with was that the bullpen in some park or another was in left field. In the days before relievers became an integral part of a team, the best pitchers were the starters. The relievers were decidedly less impressive. And didn't they often develop a reputation for being a little flaky? So those who were called from the bullpen would come "out of left field" instead of from the dugout. And those who came out of left field would have been looked down on.
Finally, John Thorn, throws out one more idea regarding the origin of the term:
Another, Anecdotal Theory: I always figured that "out of left field" described a pitch that seemed to come in from left field rather than the pitcher's mound, startling and puzzling the batter, whose concentration was focused straight ahead. In other words, the unexpected, surprising, strange ball coming at him could only be picked up via his peripheral vision.
Overall, some interesting theories. I'll probably do some research of my own on the subject, at some point, and I'll be sure to post any additional findings. Stay tuned...

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