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Way out in left field

Posted by R. Berg on January 29, 2001

In Reply to: Way out in left field posted by ESC on January 28, 2001

: : where did the phrase "out of left field" came from?
: : my intuition says it from baseball, but why left and not right?

: WAY OUT IN LEFT FIELD - Out of touch, eccentric, odd; also, misguided. This term alludes to the left field of baseball, and there is some disagreement concerning its origin. Some writers suggest it comes from the remoteness of left field, but only in very asymmetrical ballparks is left field more distant than right field. Others suggest it alludes to the 'wrongness' of left as opposed to the 'rightness' of right. A correspondent of William Safire's in the "New York Times" said it was an insulting remark made to those who bought left-field seats in New York's Yankee Stadium during the years that Babe Ruth played right field, putting them far away from this outstanding player. Perhaps the most likely theory is that it alludes to inmates of the Neuropsychiatric Institute, a mental hospital, which was located behind left field in Chicago's old West Side Park. Hence being told you are 'out in left field' would mean you were accused of being as peculiar as a mental patient. In any event, the term has been used figuratively for various kinds of eccentricity and misguidedness since the first half of the 20th century. John Ciardi also cited a synonym, 'out in left pickle,' maintaining that 'pickle' was baseball slang for the outfield. Perhaps it once was, but it is no longer current." "Southpaws & Sunday Punches and other Sporting Expressions" by Christine Ammer (Penguin Books, New York, 1993).

Another explanation, from Eric Partridge, "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British": "you're way out in left field . . . 'In baseball, left field is at the furthest distance from the batter, to his left; [literally] it means "You're hopelessly far away from where you should be to catch the batted ball and thus put the batter out'" . . . Hence, set for a fall, a beating, a defeat; without a chance of winning . . ."
Seems to me this idea works only if batters do in fact seldom hit the ball to left field. I don't follow baseball enough to know.