Left Field by Miranda Collinge
“Out of left field”, which has come to denote something peculiar and unexpected, has its origins in baseball, left field being the area to the left of the batter as he is looking out from the plate. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Third Edition, lists two main etymological theories for the phrase, which it considers a variant of an original phrase — bear with me — in which “of ” is replaced by “in”.
The first theory is that it began as an insult aimed at kids who were dumb enough to buy left-field seats in Yankee Stadium, far away from the game’s great talisman, right fielder Babe Ruth. Left field was where you didn’t want to be.
My great-grandfather, Fred Roberts, played in left field. I know this because I have his baseball medal and it says so. The pendant is made of something gold-looking that probably isn’t gold, and features a tiny baseball diamond outlined in white over a pair of crossed bats and a laurel wreath. In black numbers at the bottom it says “1890”, in black letters at the top it says “CBBL”, and the pendant is suspended by tiny chains from a gold-looking banner that says, in capitals, “LEFT FIELD”.
Some years ago, my mother, who lives in constant anticipation of being burgled, gave me the medal alongside some other bits of jewellery she had inherited from her own mother, my Grandma Sally. A few years later, I was burgled, and they took everything except the baseball medal, perhaps not recognising its true value or perhaps doing exactly that.
I decided I might as well wear it. I pinned it to my baseball jacket, which seemed appropriate, and hoped people might ask me about it so that I could repeat what my mother, who knows almost as little about baseball as I do, had told me: that Fred Roberts played in California at the end of the 19th century for a team that became the Oakland A’s; that left field is the place for players who are unexceptional. That part always tickled her.
One day, when someone finally did ask me about it, I realised how shaky it all sounded, so I decided to find out more. I took some photographs of the medal on my phone and emailed them to a few official-sounding baseball organisations whose websites had been updated recently and didn’t feature curlicued typefaces, along with an email: “Hi, I wonder if you might be able to help…”
Three days later, I received an email from Cassidy Lent from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. “Here is some additional information about your great-grandfather,” she wrote.
She sent me his playing record, which was full of statistics and acronyms I couldn’t decipher, but listed the teams he played for: the San Francisco Emersons, the Oakland Clevelands, the Sacramento Altas, the Oakland Colonels, the Rochester Hop Bitters, the Houston Mudcats, the Rock Island-Moline Twins and the San Jose Dukes. (None of which, incidentally, went on to become the Oakland A’s, who were founded as the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901 and didn’t arrive in Oakland until 1968.) By 1893, Fred was winding up his career at the Stockton River Pirates and Sacramento Senators. He was 24.
A day after that, I received an email and some scanned newspaper clippings from Jacob Pomrenke from The Society for American Baseball Research. “My best guess is that the medal was given out to Fred Roberts for his stellar play in the California League in 1890 — with CBBL likely standing for California Baseball League,” wrote Jacob. On the basis of family lore “stellar play” seemed a stretch, but as I looked through the clippings, trying not to be distracted by neighbouring stories about “A San Diego Wild Man” and “Poisoned by Scrofula” and adverts for “White ground gripper sport Oxfords” and “Dr Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets”, it started to seem plausible.
“As an amateur twirler [pitcher] Roberts had but few equals in the State,” ran The Oakland Tribune in 1890. “Indeed, he had a very bright future before him as a twirler, but in the midst of his success, his arm went back on him and he was compelled to retire to the field. He then resolved to give up pitching and devote his attention to fielding.” But Fred’s retirement from pitching proved the making of him: in the same year, The San Francisco Call described him as “the star fielder of the league”. Left fielders,
it turns out, are not the worst fielders but often, because they receive the highest frequency of balls, the best.
A reader’s letter printed in The Sporting News in Houston, Texas, in 1892 sang his praises to the actual heavens: “Fred Roberts, our Adonis, is called the silent man of the team. His lips seldom move, except in eating, and then they quiver for all they are worth. But his playing, ye gods! Is up to the skies. No ball can chassez in any part of left except Fred unceremoniously takes it in.”
A day later, a baseball historian called Dennis Snelling sent me the notice from The Sacramento Bee about the burial of Fred Roberts, who died from appendicitis, aged 45, on 3 August 1916. The piece stated his job — Fred was by then a senior figure in the State Department of Engineering — but made no mention of his brief baseball career. Dennis also included another article, which ran a few days later in the same paper under the headline: “Fred Roberts was Greatest Ball Player State Ever Produced”.
Here, in a batch of PDFs in my inbox, was the arc of my great grandfather’s existence. Early promise, talk of the nascent Major Leagues, a dispute over pay leading to a switch of leagues, a slight return at a home team, a couple of decades of civilian work and family life, and then lights out. As I read and re-read them, I couldn’t deny the thrill of learning that someone in my family had real sporting talent — a characteristic that has been sadly bred out of us — and yet, to my surprise, it was not Fred’s life that came into clearer focus.
My Grandma Sally was nine when Fred died; her mother, Beatrice, died from influenza two years later. Sally idolised her dead parents
and in some ways she remained an 11-year-old girl all her life. She kept a box of paraphernalia from Fred and Beatrice’s wedding that spooked and fascinated me and my sister: congratulatory telegrams, rice confetti, strips of lace from Beatrice’s wedding dress and Fred’s kid gloves. (My sister took the box on The Antiques Roadshow for a laugh, albeit the kind of laugh for which you have to stand in a queue for many hours. The expert’s advice: “Bury it”.)
Right up until Grandma Sally died, two weeks before her 99th birthday, she kept by her bedside a framed photograph of Fred in his later years: pinstripe suit, stiff collar, dark tie, hair parted, moustache brushed, eyes fixed to the right of the lens, jaw firmly set.
The second major theory posited by The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Third Edition for the phrase “out in left field” is that it sprang up first in West Side Grounds, home of the Chicago Cubs from 1893 to 1915, before they moved to Weeghman Park which became Cubs Park, which became Wrigley Field. The story, which is often disputed and often retold, goes that there was a mental institution directly behind left field at the West Side Grounds. During games, the wails of the patients would drift over its walls and into the stands. If you were “way out in left field” you were off with the crazies.
It was not Fred but Sally who had experience on the other side of the wall, way out in left field. She was in and out of mental institutions while my mother was young: a couple of years at Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Clinic in San Francisco and various stays at the Herrick Hospital in Berkeley. She knew what it was to be abandoned and the terror never left her.
A few days after his first emails, Dennis Snelling sent another. A friend of his, a Sacramento baseball historian called Alan O’Connor, another person who had been kind enough to research the life of a man he’d never heard of for a stranger, had found some photographs of Fred with one of his first teams, the Sacramento Altas. “Hope these are of help to you,” wrote Dennis.
There was Fred in the middle of the back row — an odd place to put a short man — looking directly at the camera. He had a placid gaze and a thin moustache. He was wearing a white peaked cap ever so slightly askew and a dark, long-sleeved, collared team shirt; his arms were folded so that only the white letters “CRAMEN” could be seen arching across his chest. He looked very young. He looked like my grandmother. I don’t know if she ever saw it but I hope that she did.