7

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 :)

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    Bad usage: The fan burst onto the outfield from across the first baseline and ran at the pitcher who was watching the play unfolding at third. Before he realized what was happening the fan had closed the distance and landed a solid punch to the back of the pitcher's head. When asked about it later ther pitcher replied, "It was so unexpected and happened so quickly- it's like it came out of left field." – Jim Mar 23 '12 at 7:36
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    @jim: I'm not too familiar with baseball, is that bad usage because it's tautological? or because it came out of right field? Also, is that a real example? – naught101 Mar 23 '12 at 7:43
  • You guessed it- it's because it came out of right field. All persons depicted here are fictional and fabricated solely for your entertainment. Any similarity to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. – Jim Mar 23 '12 at 7:49
  • Also for the record, when I wrote that example, your question did not ask for "Real world examples" simply "examples of it being used badly" – Jim Mar 23 '12 at 7:56
  • Yes, sorry about that. Should have been clearer anyway. Good example regardless. – naught101 Mar 23 '12 at 8:00
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This phrase comes from baseball. Wikipedia has a thorough description of the etymology:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_fielder#Out_of_left_field

Among other theories listed there: "During this time period, the shape of the outfield in Yankee Stadium roughly approximated an oval,[3] 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."

3

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) says:

left field noun > out of left field unexpected, unforeseen, from nowhere US, 1946

left field adjective different, out of the ordinary. Figurative use of baseball jargon US, 1967

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) says:

out in left field Also, out of left field. Eccentric, odd; also, mistaken. For example, The composer's use of dissonance in this symphony is way out in left field, or His answer was out of left field; he was totally wrong. This idiom refers to baseball's left field but the precise allusion is disputed. Among the theories proposed is that in some ballparks the left field wall is farther from the batter than the wall in right field. Another is that in early ballparks, left field was often larger than right field and therefore was home to more lost balls and general confusion. [Mid-1900s] Also see FAR OUT.

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":

NEW YORK. April 17. Latest twist in radio linked with the war is the exceptional number of quasi-clerical groups and individuals who have come out of left field in recent months and are trying to buy, not promote, radio time.

A direct baseball pun is made in Public Utilities Fortnightly, Volume 25, Issue 1, Public Utilities Reports, 1940 (snippet, but date seems correct):

PRESIDENT Roosevelt has started the session off on a strong note of economy. His budget, with expenditures substantially reduced below those of a year ago, places the burden on Congress if it adds materially to proposed appropriations. The President in this message took a more positive stand against unnecessary expenditures than he has since the night in October, 1932, when he made his famous economy speech at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh from a platform erected over the second base. It might be suggested that in this respect January, 1940, marks the first time since then that he has been out of left field.

However, the earliest citation in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang is 1937 in 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.

1

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:

  • Most hitters are right handed and hit right handed (from the 3rd-base side of the plate).
  • Most batter “connected” pitched balls are hit straight away or "pulled" left-field-ward from the batter's box (along trajectories away from right field).
  • Accordingly, most successfully-batted pitched balls are pursued, are fielded, drop free, or get by within the relatively greater area (vis-à-vis right field) that is encompassed by left and center fields.
  • Conversely, a proportionately small number of pitches are struck into and have need to be pursued in right field, as a consequence of which….
    • Accordingly faster (running), stronger (longer throwing), better sighted (for fly ball catching), more alert (faster-reacting)—in general, the more athletically gifted, healthier, less injury-impaired, and more highly regarded individuals are most apt to be assigned or "chosen up" to the center and left field positions; whereas…
    • The less demanding (and, on the sand lot, the usually last remaining) right-field "vacancy" is the one most likely to be filled by the “least and last” viable aspirant…(in child and youth contests...the position that goes—not infrequently with some measure of stigma—to the boy deemed least reliable and, therefore, best placed “away from the action”—the position also which, sad to say, occasionally evinces a measure of comparative peer group acceptance. (To what degree any right field “bias” carries over into varsity, the minors, and the majors would be a topic “not without dissention,” but it is well known that many of the game's most productive, most illustrious players found themselves relegated to right field only after the rigors of playing left and center had worked its toll on their legs and leg joints, leaving hitting prowess as a sole remaining team asset, to be protected and extended in the relative sequester of right field.

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"?

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    Wow. Your sentence lengths are astounding. – naught101 Aug 9 '13 at 4:29
  • +1 for example of (now rare) long form writing abound with rare words (almost on the verge of "inkhorn-laden writing") :) Though it's a little bit hard to follow because of lenght it's also a nice example of how widely accepted etimologies can be incorrect (there are plenty of other examples, e.g. "black friday"'s most polular etimology is not the right one) – Mikhail Dec 13 '13 at 11:47
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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.

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Paul Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (1989) has a lengthy entry for "out in left field/out of left field":

out in left field/out of left field 1. adj. Odd; out of it. Phrase used for that which is a bit off.

ETY[MOLOGY] How left field got to be the metaphorical location for oddness has been the subject of no end of speculation. Several have suggested that it comes from the remoteness of left field. But right field is just as remote and, at the lower levels of the game at least, more likely to be populated by an odd player. ...

There are two major theories:

  1. That it was an insult heaped on kids who were stupid enough to buy left field seats in Yankee Stadium, which for many years would have put them far away from a right fielder named Babe Ruth. ...

  2. That it was, in fact, a specific reference to the fact that there was a mental hospital, the Neuropsychiatric Institute, in back of left field in the old, 19th-century West Side Park in Chicago. ...

It should be pointed out that there was a phrase used in the 1930s that was "way out in left field without a glove." According to a United Press International dispatch of April 19, 1937, which carried George Kirksey's byline, the phrase was not used to describe a player who is out of it but rather one "as proficient at whipping over a smart crack as a sizzling strike."

Although Dickson includes a "1." before the definition "Odd; out of it," he offers no second definition for the term. This is somewhat surprising because most authorities understand "out in left field" and "out of left field" to have quite different meanings—the former suggesting isolation and the latter unexpectedness. In this answer, I will look at the two expressions separately.


'Out in left field'

The last paragraph in Dickson's entry refers to the same quotation that appears in J.E. Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, volume 2 (1997) and is cited in Hugo's answer:

out {or off} in left field, 1. (of persons) eccentric; (hence, broadly) absurd; nonsensical, unreasonable; entirely wrong; far from the mark. Also, as quasi-adv. [First cited occurrence:] 1937 S.F. Chronicle (Apr. 19) (Tamony Coll[ection]): 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 mart crack as a sizzling strike. ... 2. distracted; unconscious. [Cited occurrences from 1958 and 1964 omitted.] 3. very far away; (hence) out of touch; in obscurity; in a difficult position; at a disadvantage; at a loss. [Cited occurrences from 1945 and later omitted.]

I am not inclined to take George Kirksey's 1937 interpretation of the meaning of "in left field without a glove" as entirely accurate—in part because the phrase (used figuratively) appears some 30 months earlier in a non-baseball context. From George Durno, "News Behind the News: The National Whirligig," in the Santa Cruz [California] Evening News (October 26, 1934):

Any New Dealer so brash in the interim [before the 1934 midterm elections] as to start announcing new policies or taking controversial action in connection with those existing probably would wind up in left field without a glove. As they all know this, the team undoubtedly will remain intact.

The sense of "in left field without a glove" here means something like "sent to Coventry"—that is, banished to an undesirable place with out the necessary equipment to do the job. Contrary to Dickson's reading of the 1937 quote about Lefty Gomez, the 1934 quote is not meant to describe someone as witty or quick with a riposte; it describes someone who is being punished for disregarding orders—and it is not a great stretch to see that sense of being "out in left field" being extended to refer to a person who frequently behaves eccentrically or unpredictably or without proper discipline. A more recent term for the same sort of eccentricity is "flakey" (of behavior) or "flake" (of the person who acts flakey).

As for Dickson's theories of "out in left field" originating in New York City or Chicago, the chief problem is that the two earliest instances I found are from Cambridge, Massachusetts—and again, they refer only figuratively to baseball. First, from "Surprises at City Council Meeting—Councillors Delaney and Leahy Really Agree—Mr. Sennott Chides Pres. Murphy," in the Cambridge [Massachusetts] Sentinel (January 26, 1929):

Delaney continued, "It might be well right, that there’s nothing for Cambridge to get after a lapse of 19 months. Why has Cambridge been so lax? Cambridge has been left out in left field, holding the bag." Councillor Leahy surprised the gathering by supporting Councillor Delaney. He was only too pleased to learn why the city was being "guzzled."

And from "Gossip," again in the Cambridge [Massachusetts] Sentinel (June 20, 1931):

Police Captain Donahue, of the Traffic Squad, has determined to prosecute any motorist caught going to the left of the North Cambridge "islands," or parking their cars in the zones. The City Council is out in left field in this instance. Bravo, Cap! The state is the first law in Massachusetts, and Joe knows that he is first an officer of the Commonwealth, which delegates police powers to cities and towns.

So Cambridge, Massachusetts was using out in left field" in what appears to be the figurative sense that Lighter describes as definition 3 for his entry: "out of touch; in obscurity; in a difficult position; at a disadvantage; at a loss." It is hard to see the relevance of a Chicago sanitarium or New York City's ballpark layout to these instance from 1929 and 1931.

A somewhat more literal sense appears in Jim Kean, "Thru the Eagle's Eye," in the Boston [Massachusetts] Heights (November 24, 1939):

d I are more interested in getting together $2.20 to see Auburn and Temple, than to make reservations for the Cross game. So, comes the Cross game and we are out in left field without a glove. The shoppers have spent their $3.30 for the year and have taken up all the seats.

The "right fielder named Babe Ruth" theory that Dickson cites also suffers from the fact that Ruth actually played almost the same number of games in left field (1,048) as in right field (1,130) over the course of his career. What made the right field seats more desirable at Yankee Stadium, I imagine, is that as a left-handed power hitter, Ruth would tend to hit most of his home runs into the right field stands. But that doesn't seem like much to hang an insulting chant on.


'[From] out of left field'

Lighter has this separate entry for "from {or out of} left field":

from {or out of} left field, 1. as if from nowhere; from out of the blue; (hence) without warning; most unexpectedly. [Earliest cited instances:] 1947 Bowers & Millhauser Web (film): I really solved this one from left field. 1952 The Hunter (CBS-TV): Where are these putouts {murders} {murders} coming from, left field? 1960 Sat[urday] Evening Post (Aug. 13) 76: You see a little wiggle that suddenly comes out of left field. She is absolutely unexpected. ... 2. out {or off} in left field, below. [Earliest cited occurrence:] 1949 KFRC radio (S[an] F[rancisco]) (july 24) (Tamony Coll[ection]: Maybe I was a little dreamy and from left field.

In its etymological discussion of "left field" as a more general phrase, Lighter offers these thoughts:

left field, n. {of baseball origin; semantic development obscure; perh[aps] sug[gested] by the fact that, owing to the distance involved, a putout throw from left field to first base is extremely difficult; ...}

Lighter then cites a lengthy discussion in William Safire, I Stand Corrected: More on Language (1986), which dedicates three pages to discussing a number of other consideration that may have factored into the emergence of the notion that left field is a remote place conducive to oddball behavior. A subsequent book by Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008) distills those theories to two that he seems to view as most probable and satisfactory explanations for the genesis of the term:

Sports fans differ on the reasoning behind the metaphor. Some suggest that left fielder play farther out to get the power balls hit by right-handed players. Others note that in most of the older, asymmetrical ballparks—Yankee Stadium [in the Bronx, New York], Ebbets Field [in Brooklyn, New York], Forbes Field [in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania] among others—left field was deeper than right field. That gave left-handed batters an advantage because distances to right-field fences were shorter.

These observations make sense in the context the isolation sense of "out in left field" but they do little to justify the unexpectedness sense of "[from] out of left field." There, I think, Lighter's argument that the phrase reflects the difficulty of throwing a runner out at first base on a ball hit to left field left field has some plausibility. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that most baseball teams put their fastest sure-handed starting outfielder in center field (because he has the largest amount of ground to cover), and their strongest-armed outfielder in right field (because it is extremely important strategically to limit the number of base runners who successfully go from first base to third base on a single, and the throw from right field to third base is much longer than the throw from left field to third base. Consequently, many teams put their weakest-armed starting outfielder in left field—and a powerful, accurate throw from left field may come as a surprise.

Another explanation involves not the surprise that the throw from left field produces on spectators, but the uncertainty that a throw from left field may involve from the perspective of the receiving infielder. On a throw from right field to third base (or to second base) the infielder preparing to make the catch is facing both the incoming ball and the advancing runner; but on a throw from left field, the infielder is either standing sideways to the advancing runner (at third base) or facing the other direction entirely (at second base). There is thus a heightened element of uncertainty associated with any throw from left field—especially in the rough-and-tumble days of early baseball when runners were encouraged to knock down fielders on close plays at any base.

There is, however, not much evidence that "out of left field" in the sense of unexpected had much currency in baseball before it began appearing in a figurative sense in contexts outside baseball. The earliest matches (from 1947 and 1952) for "from left field" are figurative, as is the earliest instance that a Google Books search finds for "out of left field." From Hal Webman & Alan Fischler, "The Record Year," in The Billboard (Jun 19, 1948):

The second Petrillo ban hit the biz on New Year's Day. And the costs incurred in pre-ban recording took its toll of some of the less stable smaller companies. Hit records and hit songs came out of left field throwing somewhat of a damper on the "name" singer cycle and the big publisher ballad market.

The same is true of the earliest matches returned by an Elephind newspaper database search. From Erskine Johnson, "It's Jane Froman's Voice in Susan Hayward's Throat," in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (July 16, 1951):

"I never thought I'd get out of cops-and-robbers pictures," Scott [Brady] told me at the Beverly Gourmet. "Then this thing came out of left field. I'm playing comedy for the first time. I look at the screen and say is this really me? Is this the guy who smelled in all those other pictures?"

And from Bob Thomas, "Hollywood," in the Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (November 6, 1952):

Miss Ritter continues to maintain a home in the east, where her husband, advertising man Joseph Moran, and two children live. She commutes here for pictures and remains aloof from the Hollywood hubbub. In fact, it looked a few months ago as though she would chuck the works because of the roles she was getting.

"I was playing too many maids," she commented. "Or at least it seemed as though I was. I was a maid in 'A Letter To Three Wives,' but that gal was right out of left field. Then there was 'All About Eve.' But what most people didn't catch was the line where I told Bette Davis that for 10 years I closed the first act. Anybody who did that in vaudeville was doing all right."

And from Lyn Connelly, "A Peak at the Stars," in the Claude [Texas] News (October 7, 1954):

Georgia Gibbs keeps pulling songs out of left field . . . Her smash, "Seven Lonely Days." was written by Yale students . . . Her popular. "What Does It Mean To Be Lonely?" was written by two Miami Beach lawyers.

An interesting early figurative use of "from left field" appears in an account of a boxing match between Joe Louis and Primo Carnera, where the expression seems to mean "from a long distance." From Henry McLemore, "Louis 'In' on First Blow," in the [Champaign-Urbana, Illinois] Evening Courier (June 26, 1935):

He [Louis] threw a punch. Was it a right or a left? I don't know. It started too swiftly. It landed high on Carnera's cheekbone and the Italian sank to the floor like a shot-through elephant. Out of his head, he was up as the timekeeper tolled "two-uh!" Watching him, bleeding, glassy and rubber-kneed, you wished he'd stay down for good, for you knew what awaited him.

Louis, as cold as ice, met him coming up and nailed him with a left. You could see the blow this time, for he started it from left field. Carnera hit the deck again.

The description suggests a similarity between Louis's punch and an outfielder winding up to throw a baseball into the infield from left field.

And from Charles Freeman, "At the New York Theatres," in the Bronxville [New York] Reporter (March 12, 1953):

I, further, would like to recommend to all would-be writers of comedy that they sit in a few times and observe Mr. [Hugh] Herbert's manner of dialoguing his characters through the premise set down in THE MOON IS BLUE. For here is a craftsman who is a shrewd observer of character, has just the right instinct for the comic line and story twist and wastes no time between jokes which latter, he does not bring in from left field.


Conclusions

U.S. English has a number of idiomatic expressions tied to "left field" (part of the outfield in baseball and softball), including "out in left field," "out of left field," and "from left field." The first of these phrases tends to be used to convey the idea of isolation or uninformedness. The other two more centrally involve the idea of unexpectedness or, in some cases, kookiness or eccentricity.

Why left field, rather than the other two outfield positions (center field and right field), received this idiomatic attention is a matter of conjecture. None of the theories that I have read seem especially persuasive. Given that right-handed batters tend to hit the ball to left field, and left-handed batters to right field, the association of the expression "[from] out of left field" with unexpectedness must originally have reflected something other than how frequently a ball is thrown in from left field.

One possibility that actually links the "unexpectedness" meaning to the relative frequency with which balls are hit to left field is that the expression arose from batting practice sessions where outfielders chase down the balls that they can't catch on the fly or on the bounce and then throw them back toward the pitcher's mound while the pitcher continues to throw pitches to the batter in the batter's box. Under those circumstances, a pitcher may have delivered several additional pitches before a ball from an earlier pitch comes back in from the outfield. And since the pitcher is focused on (and facing) the batter and on home plate, a ball arriving tardily from the outfield might very well come as surprise, especially if it hits the pitcher or rolls underfoot as he is delivering another pitch. It seems to have come out of nowhere.

But there is no consensus as to the nature of the left-field-specific surprise that gave rise to calling something unexpected "from out of left field"; indeed, there is not even consensus on whether the surprise in question is unexpected from the perspective of a player on the field or of a spectator in the stands or of both.

0

Left field in baseball is a very busy place with a lot of hit baseballs going there due to the majority of batters being right handed and tending to pull the ball that direction. So things going into left field are common. A natural contradiction is that things coming out of left field would be very unusual and unexpected. Thus the saying.

PB

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