Date: Tue, 23 Jan 1996 10:50:50 +0000
From: "E. W. Gilman" egilman[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]M-W.COM
Subject: out in left field
The origin of the phrase is obscure. Paul Dickson's Baseball
Dictionary mentions the phrase, but hazards no opinion of its origin.
Christine Ammer's dictionary of cliches, "Have A Nice Day", offers
three theories gleaned from William Safire. Two deal with distance,
either to the left field wall or to the left fielder, and one claims
that "in the Chicago Cubs' old ballpark" a mental hospital was
located just beyond left field (this seems pretty far-fetched).
Ammer says the phrase has been in use since about 1950, but cites
only a 1974 example. These dates reflect our files in a general way;
our earliest citation comes from 1956 and shows the phrase either not
fixed in form yet, or a very un-baseballish author: in a review of
"Waiting for Godot" Estragon is described as "a fellow out on left
field". A couple of years later an unidentified speaker (perhaps
Jack Benny) is quoted as saying "My so-called Allen feud came
strictly out of left field". I expected better evidence, but there
was a long-established disinterest in sports lingo back in those
days. The phrase begins appearing with "in" as the usual preposition
in the 1970s.