"out of left field" (Why "left"?)

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Thu Mar 1 01:54:57 UTC 2001

    Following Jesse Sheidlower's  mention of the _Historical
Dictionary of American Slang_ I found the earliest attestation of
slang "left field" there:

1937. _S.F. Chronicle_ (April 19) 2H: 'Lefty Gomez [New York Yankees
pitcher noted for his eccentric humor] is "way out in left field
without a glove" in baseball jargon.  In other words he is as
proficient at whipping over a smart crack as a sizzling strike.'

      A few thoughts come to mind:

1) If "way out in left field without a glove" is baseball jargon, why
isn't attested anywhere else? Might Lefty Gomez himself have been the
starting point?

2) "Way out in left field without a glove" is reminiscent of "up the
creek without a paddle," which is often shortened to simply "up the
creek." The same sort of shortening possibly occurred to "way out in
left field (without a glove)."

3) Today (Feb. 28) James Landau commented:
>The only other baseball metaphor that seems to fit is the fact that many
>baseball fields built before World War II right fields that were smaller than
>their left fields.  Hence there was a lot more left field to be out of than
>there was right field.
    I specifically remember Yankee Stadium in the 1950s. It was about
460 feet to straightaway center field, and not too far over (in left
center) it was 452 feet. Ballplayers referred to that area as Death
Valley, and I remember seeing some tremendous drives caught routinely
by the outfielder in left center who had moved all the way back in
anticipation of just such a drive.
Meanwhile, It was only some 360 feet (give or take) to right center,
while down the right field foul line it was 298 or 299 feet (so Babe
Ruth could more easily hit hit homers). Down the left field line it
was about 320 feet (give or take).

4)_The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary_ mentions under "death
valley": "Well known 'death valleys' are left-center field in Yankee
Stadium and center field in Tiger Stadium."

5) Let's assume that the slang "left field" metaphor did not start
with "way out OF left field" but "way out IN left field (without a
glove)". A player who would be playing (or even just practicing) way
out there without a glove would have to be eccentric.  Of course a
glove is needed at any position, but the death-valley nature of
left-center field at Yankee Stadium might have caught the imagination
more than say, right field.

6) So here is a summary of the hypothesis (and yes, yes, I know I've
been wrong with previous hypotheses): The expression arose with "out
in left field without a glove." Lefty Gomez was either the originator
of the expression or the one who caused its initial spread, such as
it was. The original reference was not to left-field itself but to
left-center, specifically the one in Yankee Stadium, Gomez's
home-field. The eccentric nature of Lefty Gomez helped the spread of
"out in left field" to indicate something eccentric, and he himself
was described with "out in left field without a glove" in the 1937
article.  The "without a glove" part was soon dropped. Slang "way out
in left field" then acquired the variant "(way out) of left field,"
possibly by analogy with "(a remark) out of the blue."

---Gerald Cohen

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