What is the origin of the phrase from out of left field? My understanding is that the meaning is unexpected, or odd. Is that correct?
Real world examples of the phrase being used badly would be great :)
This phrase comes from baseball. Wikipedia has a thorough description of the etymology:
Among other theories listed there: "During this time period, the shape of the outfield in Yankee Stadium roughly approximated an oval, with the "long" portion pointing to left-center. A left-fielder would thus typically be stationed further back from the action than the center or right fielders, as he would have a greater amount of ground to cover. Hence, "out in left field" meant one was furthest from the action taking place at home-plate, and the most likely to draw erroneous, fanciful conclusions about that action."
That "theory" (the Yankee Stadium rationalization) seems not only to be a case of Wikipedia error, but also one of urban myth's supplanting of factual origins. The mistaken usage, "…out in left field" (and its similarly misinformed pseudo derivative, "…out of left field") can arguably be said, at a fundamental level, to have resulted, apart from any connection to original meaning, solely from the circumstance that the majority of people are right handed—a recapitulation of sorts of the sinister-dexterous versus right-&-left handedness linguistic dichotomy; and, not surprisingly, because the Internet is no less effective propagating and perpetuating error than accuracy. (An unrelated example of how people's natural proclivities can bring about rephrasing of once logical (albeit likewise niche vernacular) sayings would be the transmutation of "You cannot eat your cake and have it, too" (a clearly sensible proposition) into "You cannot have your cake and eat it, too" (a statement fraught with ambiguity... to no recognizable effect).
In times past, when a substantially greater number of Americans--youth and adult alike--played, followed, or otherwise actively and socially participated in the game, the then well known, baseball-derived expression, "…out in right field" (no, not "out of..." but the allusion could still hold, albeit with dubious effect and validity) was (and still is) not in reference to size or distances in a ball park: were that the case, would we not speak of things being “from out of” these “parks' left” or “those parks’ right” fields? Or, collectively-speaking, of their being from out in, or out of, an archetypal park’s center field…the field which, indeed, would circumscribe the greatest area and subtend the greatest distances in the majority of parks...and "sand" lots?
So, if not the greater space and longer distances of the eastward and northward situated baseball outfields, then what would explain how and why that outfield which is shortest and smallest gives rise (and does so for an erstwhile self-evident reason) to a figure of speech pertaining—rightly or wrongly—to some aberrant or derogatory quality or feature?
To aficionados of baseball lore and novice players of the game (especially those latter who have experienced e being "exiled" to right), that question devolves to a set of observations not always obvious to baseball-non-participants, or even to ball park spectators, namely, that:
Because of the long periods of right fielder idleness between hits to right, a relatively inexperienced right field player can sometimes fall subject to lapses of attention... even so far as to be caught daydreaming, or napping standing (in baseball parlance, to be caught flat footed) when a fly or drive soars over, by, under or sometimes even into a too-late roused, might-have-been “fielder.”
Whence a manager’s or fellow player’s derogation, and a broader populace’s aspersion, directed, respectively, toward or with regard to a player, or person, who is found, or deemed likely to be found, in a state of least attention (alertness, awareness, wakefulness,…) when a situation most calls for it; a baseball allusion (and double entendre) in which, be it within the paradigm of baseball or otherwise, and irrespective of any specific location or context, a person, for lack of attention or by taint of wandering mind, is said to be or have been “out in right field.” (By double entendre is meant “out” also in the sense of altered consciousness.)
So we have today a frequently used, and almost as frequently miss-used figure of speech (the latter for which we even have highly-paid sport commentators to thank) of which it can be said, that because of a mere physical-genetic “accident” of nature, called handedness, its actual significance has come to escape virtually all who speak it. Would it be fair, then, to say that the …bastardized form, out in, or from out in, left field represents a societal cultural diminishment? In some regards the answer must be yes; but not in all regards, which is to say: that in error virtue (of sorts) can sometimes be found.
So it is that when we most often hear mention of a thing’s “coming from” (as opposed to a person's being) "out in right (or left) field” (or, in another baseball allusion, of its being “off the” [outfield] “wall” [and thus harder to “catch”…its meaning], could it not be said that the speaker has, unwittingly or otherwise (nah) made his own inattention, heedlessness, or misunderstanding the object of derision in place of another (in the proverbial outfield, from whence the thing came or bounced)? Is not the equivalent defense, “it came unexpectedly”, also an admission that the one to whom it came was caught unawares? Just as if he, not the other, had been "out in right field"?
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) says:
See also Safire's Political Dictionary for more discussion.
I found some examples earlier than 1946.
Billboard magazine, 24 Apr 1943, "Religion All Of A Sudden: Groups With Self-Styled Piety Capitalizing on War Nerves by Buys on Indies But Nets Sneer":
A direct baseball pun is made in Public Utilities Fortnightly, Volume 25, Issue 1, Public Utilities Reports, 1940 (snippet, but date seems correct):
However, the earliest citation in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang is 1937 in S.F. Chronicle (April 19) 2H:
In Chicago Il the old sight of West Side Field bound by Wood.Damen, Taylor, and Polk I believe home of the Cubs in the early 1900's where Cook County Hospital was there was a psychiatric ward "way out in left field" and when a ball was hit really far, at the time there were no home run fences,the phrase was coined by some ballplayer. There is still a placque ther today on the site.