“Well, that came from way out in left field!”
It’s something we’ve all heard, and most of us have said once or twice in our lives. The phrase, of course, means “out of nowhere” or “happening unexpectedly” and is so ingrained in our culture as an idiom, we rarely stop to think of its roots.
On a tour of Wrigley Field a couple years back, the plucky tour guide was throwing facts at us a mile a minute. He talked about the team’s original name, the establishment of the stadium, and a good mix of things I did and didn’t know already. Then he dropped a biggie: “You know, there actually used to be a mental hospital out beyond the left field wall, and sometimes fans and players could hear the patients there screaming. So that’s where the phrase ‘way out in left field’ came from.”
We all collectively oohed and nodded our approval, and I thought no more of it for several years.
Language is a particularly fascinating topic to me, and I love to see how words and phrases evolve over time. So when I decided to come back to this topic as a piece of Cubs history to write about, the truth of the story was much, much more interesting. You see, the Wrigley tour guide that day was both wrong and a little right. The phrase’s origins have nothing to do with Wrigley at all, but the general consensus does suggest the Cubs are at the root of it.
The “left field” of legend was not the one at Wrigley Field, but rather the left field of the West Side Grounds, where the Cubs played from 1893-1915. There are several versions of the history, one which suggested the Cook County Hospital was the hospital in question, the other implying it was a hospital simply named the “Neuropsychiatric Institute.”
The “Neuropsychiatric Institute” actually still exists, and is the NPI now, a part of the University of Chicago. The trouble with this suggestion is that the founding of the NPI didn’t take place until the Great Depression, in 1937, and construction wasn’t begun until 1939. The Cubs were already playing at Wrigley (and Wrigley had already changed from Weeghman Park to Wrigley Field) by 1939. What makes this so frustrating, it is almost a perfect fit. The location is actually on the same lot as the old West Side Grounds, slightly south of where the field was.
So, not the Neuropsychiatric Institute, then.
The Cook County Hospital, however — the original Cook County Hospital — was immediately north of the West Side Grounds, and was in operation during the Cubs tenure at that field. Wikipedia, ever at risk of getting things wrong, tells us that Cook County couldn’t be the right hospital, as someone claims the left field was against Wood Street and not Polk, where the hospital was. However, further investigation shows that the grandstand from home plate to left field did run along Polk, but was set a little way back from the road, meaning there were actually some houses between the left field grandstand and the Cook County Hospital.
In 2008, an historical marker was placed on the site, which you can see today on South Wood Street, about half a block north of Taylor Street:
Ultimately, there’s no way to know if the legend of “way out in left field” really did originate from the sound of mental patients screams being heard at the field. The timeline and location support it, and there’s historical reference to suggest that the late 1800s was a particularly grim time at the Cook County Hospital, with issues of over-population and political corruption running rampant. There might have been good reasons for those patients to be hollering.
Some linguistic historians, like Professor Marcus Callies, discount the mental patient aspect entirely and suggest the phrase’s baseball origins are much simpler. A runner going for home might very well be taken by surprise by a long, accurate throw coming “out of left field.”
I for one choose to believe the weird and wacky story of the screaming patients of Cook County, though that Wrigley tour guide might want to work on his history a little.
Cook County Hospital — Encyclopedia of Chicago
West Side Park — Wikipedia
Chicago’s West Side Grounds - Where the Cubs Last Won the World Series — Deadball Baseball
“Out of Left Field” — Wikipedia