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

Frank Abate abatefr at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Mar 1 11:44:21 UTC 2001

What Gerald Cohen describes is quite plausible.  Lefty Gomez was a well
known wag, on the most written about and winning team in history.  If he
said "way out in left field without a glove", it no doubt would have been
picked up, not just by the SF Chronicle.  Are there other occurrences in
papers of the day?

The term "Death Valley" is still used of left center in Yankee Stadium.
Though the dimensions are shorter now in all fields, that part of the
outfield is still deeper than right center there.  And dead right field is
still shorter than straightaway left there.  So the park still favors lefty
power hitters, esp. line drive hitters.  Fenway Park in Boston also has a
shorter right field (the "short porch"), friendly to lefties, while in left
the Green Monster turns a lot of deep line drives into singles.

I'll leave it there before I digress further.

Frank Abate
(diehard Tiger fan and baseball umpire)

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
Of Gerald Cohen
Sent: Wednesday, February 28, 2001 8:55 PM
Subject: Re: "out of left field" (Why "left"?)

    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
>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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