“A nine-year-old youth has members of the police department playing out in left field somewhere when it comes to aiding them in finding $18.32 which the boy admits he stole.” Cambridge (MA) Sentinel, September 23, 1922, p1
Previous earliest use (Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd edition, 2009):
No first use given, but extensive comments on origin:
“One major theory postulates that the phrase 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. This theory was suggested by David Shulman in a letter quoted by William Safire (I Stand Corrected, 1984): ‘When I was in my teens, living in the Bronx, we kids were always most anxious to get our seats in the right field where we would be closest to Babe Ruth, so I suppose anybody in the left field was far out.’ A second major theory suggests that the phrase was a reference to the mental hospital, the Neuropsychiatric Institute, in back of left field in the old West Side Park in Chicago. The most specific description of this theory appears in a letter from physician Gerald M. Eisenberg of Chicago, also quoted in Safire’s I Stand Corrected (1984): ‘In Chicago, when someone said that one was ‘out in left field,’ the implication was that one was behaving like the occupants of the Neuropsychiatric Institute, which was literally out in left field.’ This has been corroborated by researcher Richard L. Miller of Cincinnati, who has been doing research on the Chicago ballparks.
The entry notes that other theories have been largely discounted.
- NOTES: The 1922 citation is from the year before Yankee Stadium opened, so that makes the first theory in the 2009 Dictionary wrong (although it could have been applied to Ruth in right field in the Polo Grounds before the Yankees moved to the new stadium). The Neuropsychiatric Institute in Chicago opened in 1937, long after the Cubs had moved to Wrigley Field. The Cook County Hospital was in back of left field at the West Side Park, though it does not appear to have been a mental hospital. I have not found an original source for the story that attributes the origin of the phrase to the presence of the hospital. The earliest reference to the story I’ve found is a relatively recent one from the website The Way Out in Left Field Society. The author of another article, in 2018, says they heard the story years earlier from a tour guide at Wrigley. (Ken Liss)