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Why is home plate in the southwest corner of most major league baseball stadiums?

Dear Cecil:

I understand Comiskey Park in Chicago, built in the early 1990s, is the only baseball stadium in the major leagues with home plate in the northwest corner, rather than the southwest. Why are all ballparks oriented this way? Didn't the owners of the White Sox care that they have the only exception?

Jerry, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Some White Sox fans at the time worked themselves into a real lather over this. A letter in the Chicago Sun-Times began, “Am I the last `right field is the sun field in baseball’ American living in America? Left field will be the sun field in the new White Sox stadium [due to the orientation of home plate]. All the current geniuses creating this new stadium are ignoring tradition. I am appalled and shocked,” blah, blah, blah.

I should explain that right field is the “sun field” in most major league ballparks because the right fielder must look into the sun when catching fly balls during afternoon games. This is one reason (though not the most important one) that most clubs put a stronger defensive player in right field than in left. Making left field the sun field, some purists claim, will throw off the game’s subtle balances, create havoc in the outfield, and, to hear some tell it, hasten the decline of the West.

This is absurd. For one thing, not all major league ball fields have home plate in the southwest. Southwest admittedly is common (at least 14 of 22 outdoor parks). But several parks have home plate in the northwest, including County Stadium in Milwaukee, for God’s sake, which is only 90 miles from Chicago. Other northwest parks (as near as I can make out — the records on this topic are dismal, and the people at the ballparks have a pretty vague sense of direction) include Arlington Stadium in Texas, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

The reason home plate is oriented the way it is, in any case, has nothing to do with the outfielders. It’s meant to help the batter. If the plate were on the east side of the ballpark, the batter would be facing west, meaning he’d have the afternoon sun in his eyes. Not only would his batting average suffer, he might fail to duck next time a wild pitch came screaming toward his noggin. Putting home in the southwest or northwest corner eliminates this problem.

It’s also the reason left-handed pitchers are called “southpaws.” Because a lefty has to pitch in a generally westerly direction, his throwing arm is toward the south. This will be as true in the new Comiskey as it was in the old. In sum, White Sox fans needn’t get too excited about the ballpark. Better they should reserve their panic for the team.

Voice from the grandstand

Dear Cecil:

You are way out in left field regarding the origin of “southpaw.” If you consult Paul Dickson’s Dictionary of Baseball, in which he gives me credit for many of the entries, you will find that the term is cited before any ballgrounds were constructed according to the direction of the sun. The story that the pitcher’s left arm was on the south side of the slab is fanciful. No extra charge for the straight dope I’m giving you.

— David Shulman, New York

Cecil isn’t ready to admit he was wrong — Cecil would sooner have his nails pulled out by pliers — but he’ll concede the situation is more complex than he first let on. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of southpaw was in 1848 — describing a boxer’s left-handed punch. This is long before the start of professional baseball and only a few years after baseball was supposedly invented in 1839. (Actually, of course, the game’s origins go back much earlier.)

Fatal though this might seem to your ordinary argument, Cecil is no ordinary guy. Obviously there were no professional-baseball stadiums in 1848. But it is reasonable to suppose that any game involving pitching and batting usually would have the batter’s spot oriented toward the west, even for sandlot games, for the reasons already stated. Historians agree such games have been played for centuries, long before the establishment of modern baseball. This is ample time for the term southpaw to have gotten anchored in the sporting lexicon, and for me simultaneously to wiggle off the hook. So there.

Cecil Adams

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