“Hey Dave, I’ve got an article idea for you. It’s a bit out of left field.”
That’s how I pitched a recent story to my editor, and it sparked a thought. Where does this saying come from: “Out of left field?” It clearly has ties to baseball, but I wanted to dig deeper and see whether there’s an official origin for the phrase.
Turns out the Chicago Cubs are likely part of the origin story.
In my initial research, I even encountered this Know Your Phrase article, which addresses me by name and claims I should lose weight. Brutal!
The phrase typically comes into play when an idea is surprising or unexpected. Perhaps a breakup “came out of left field.” A shocking development is usually reason enough to deploy the saying.
But where does the phrase itself originate? The jury’s out, but there are possible ties to the Chicago Cubs.
“Out Of Left Field” has hotly-debated origins
Nobody can seem to agree on where this idiom comes from. Perhaps that’s fitting considering it means surprising or unexpected. It’s hard to pin down.
However, there are two primary origin stories.
The first claims that the phrase originated in the music industry. In 1949, historian Arnold Shaw claimed the term became popular in Tin Pan Alley, used to describe an unexpected hit song.
The second origin story has strong ties to the Chicago Cubs. I first heard it anecdotally while chatting with a friend, and I decided to dig deeper.
Boo birds, a mental health facility and the Cubbies
In short, this friend told me the phrase comes from the old Wrigley Field days. Legend has it a mental health facility was torn down to construct the iconic ballpark, and the left outfield now resides atop the old site.
I later learned from Grammarist that some say the mental facility was supposedly located near the Chicago baseball institution, and patients would “heckle players and spectators from behind left field,” as Grammarist says.
Yet according to Ashley MacLennan of Bleed Cubbie Blue, that story is largely apocryphal. Parts of it ring true, but the narrative has been shaped over the years to become unrecognizable.
First off, the idiom’s “left field” doesn’t reference Wrigley at all. Instead, it points to the West Side Ground, the pre-Wrigley home field of the Chicago Cubs from 1893 to 1915.
Second, accounts conflict with regard to which mental facility existed there — if any at all. Some say it’s the Cook County Hospital while others reference a vaguely-named “Neuropsychiatric Institute.” MacLennan debunks the latter; the Neuropsychiatric Institute is indeed real, but it wasn’t built until 1939.
The Cook County Hospital theory, however, holds water. The original site of the hospital sat just north of the original ballpark during the years when the Cubs played there.
It becomes a stretch from there, though. There were multiple buildings between the park and the hospital, making the “out of left field” origin hard to attribute to Chicago beyond a doubt.
Whether any of the possibilities hold true, the phrase itself remains an excellent descriptor of something unexpected.
Chicago Cubs bets out of left field this season?
The Cubs’ chances of a World Series this year might be just as mythical as the “out of left field” origins. Chicago are hovering around .500 and in third place in the NL Central behind the Brewers and Reds.