In popular lore, left field is a region that is removed from the mainstream. To be “out of left field” is not exactly a compliment.
According to journalist and speechwriter William Safire:
Where in the heavens or on earth is ”left field”? How did that area on the baseball field become the metaphoric epitome of faroutedness? To come ”from out of left field” is to be rooted in the ridiculous, crackbrained, farfetched; to ”be out in left field” is, according to American Speech magazine in 1961, to be ”disoriented, out of contact with reality.”
Continuing the baseball reference, Safire also wrote in an column on the subject:
Our Ambassador to the European office of the United Nations, Gerald Helman, writes from Geneva: ”Right field was thought of as the most difficult to play because it was the ‘sun field,’ and required the fielder to have a strong arm for the long throw to third. As a consequence, the good hitting, poor fielding players were put in left. … Because of the defensive inadequacies of left fielders, you could expect almost anything to happen when the ball was hit to them.”
For a right-wing conservative, Safire seemed to be familiar with many things left.
The Way Out in Left Field Society is a group that works to preserve oddities and little-known facts from the sports world. From their website:
The phrase “way out in left field” has evolved to mean an eccentric, odd, misguided or peculiar statement or act. Although the origin of the phrase has been challenged and debated over the years, the most logical and realistic explanation comes from an extinct baseball park called West Side Grounds that the Chicago Cubs called home from 1893 to 1915. As legend has it, a mental hospital called the Neuropsychiatric Institute was located directly behind the left field wall. The Institute housed mental patients who could be heard making strange and bizarre comments within listening distance of players and fans. Thus, if someone said that you were “way out in left field,” the person was questioning your sanity and comparing you with a mental patient.
So, to be associated with left field, is really to be an insult. Weakest athlete? Out of touch with reality? Mental patient?
For the record, there have been some fine athletes who have patrolled left field in the Major Leagues, an impressive group are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. These are not just the best “left fielder”, these are among the best all-time great players.
Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, Al Simmons, Jim Rice, Lou Brock, Zack Wheat, Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner, Monte Irvin, Joe Medwick, etc.
Closer to my home, Kansas City Royals recent retiree Alex Gordon won eight Gold Glove Awards in left field after moving from third base.
To describe someone as “from left field”, is to recognize something different from the norm, and not necessarily as a negative. Perhaps it is an ability to have a broader, less confined perspective or view of the world that sets these folks apart from conventional thought? People with “odd” ideas routinely push the boundaries of science, math, medicine, engineering, architecture, art, film, music, philosophy, and of course, comedy.
Could left field also be a reference to being left-handed? Left-handlers have always been looked at funny, not quite normal. Lefties are much fewer in number. I would have to check the number of left-handers who check the mental patient box on surveys.
I found this interesting. Your left brain hemisphere controls your right hand, and vice versa.
Only 10 percent of the population is blessed to be left-handed. In history, left-handed people were associated with the Devil. Translated from Latin, sinister means “the left.” Growing up, it was common that schools, sports and even families, pressured left-handed kids to become righties.
In general, the world is positioned for right-handed people. In the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney played right-handed guitars, turned upside down, because left-handed guitars were not readily available. Right-handed guitars are easier to burn.
As a lefty, we make do in a right-handed world: Baseball gloves, scissors, computer mouse, gear shift, notebooks, old style desks, can openers and other kitchen utensils, tape measures and other tools.