The Strange, Occult Origins of the “Wacky Lefty”

Baseball is one of the rare places where it's OK to be a lefty (via Craig Michaud, ATC, Michael Marconi and Keith Allison).

Baseball is one of the rare places where it’s OK to be a lefty (via Craig Michaud, ATC, Michael Marconi and Keith Allison).

Bill Lee, baseball’s wacky lefty emeritus, once dropped this wonderful piece of wisdom on handedness:

“You have two hemispheres in your brain–a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body, and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.”

“Spaceman’s” wackiness was hardly limited to his thoughts on left-handedness. Lee famously told Boston media he would sprinkle marijuana on his morning pancakes to protect himself from bus fumes on his morning jogs to Fenway Park. He once was released by the Montreal Expos after leaving the stadium in the middle of a game only to be found in a nearby tavern later on. The stories are endless.

The wacky lefty has been a stereotype throughout baseball history. It goes all the way back to Rube Waddell, one of baseball’s first ace pitchers. Opposing fans would hold shiny objects and puppies behind home plate to distract Waddell. He would leave the dugout in the middle of games to chase fire trucks. He wrestled alligators in the offseason. From Waddell to Lee to Lefty Gomez to Al Hrabosky to Barry Zito, major league baseball always has featured a wacky lefty or two.

Baseball is unique not just for its wacky lefties. The sport is one of the few–and certainly one of the first–American institutions with a high number of visible left-handers of any disposition. It is also one of the few vocations in which being left-handed not only isn’t an impediment but actually offers a significant advantage in many scenarios. Handling a bat from the left side is much easier than dealing with those damned right-handed scissors, at least.

As innocuous as it may sound, havens for left-handers are a rarity. Even today, many parents encourage children who show an affinity for the left hand to switch to the right hand. In today’s United States, such parenting tactics are typically limited to handwriting. Many a survivor of a Catholic education, for example, can recall an instructor rapping his or her left hand with rulers should they show a preference for this wrong hand. “I grew up in a culture down south,” New York Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp recalled, “where folks thought that people who were left-handed were somehow stained by Satan.”

It sounds like Shipp is being dramatic, but the biblical connection is literal. Matthew 25:41 reads in a number of translations, including the King James Bible, “Then shall he say also unto then on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the veil and his angels.’”

The Bible has more incidents of right-handed superiority–see Deuteronomy 33:2 (God came down from Sinai with flaming fire at his right hand), Psalms 45:9 (the King is to have his queen, the most honored women, at his right) as examples–than left-handed inferiority. According to Franco Fabbro, an Italian neuroscientist who studied the entirety of the bible, there are 21 depictions of the right hand as man’s favorite hand, 29 depictions of the right hand of God, and five total depictions of the left hand, most like Matthew 25:41 above.

As Melissa Roth’s book, The Left Stuff, explores, This anti-left sentiment was likely a holdover from older civilizations. Pythagoras recommended disciples “enter holy places by the right, which is divine, and leave them by the left, the symbol of dissolution.” Aristotle plainly wrote, “They call good what is on the right, above and in front, and bad what is on the left, below and behind.”

Similar sentiments exist around the world. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism exhibit similar right-hand preferences as Christianity. The Maori of the South Pacific would kill women for using their left hands to weave cloth, and the Zulus of Africa would scald children’s left hands in order to force them to become adept with the right.

Fast-forward a couple of millennia. In 1604, England’s King James I issued a law prohibiting the practice of witchcraft under penalty of execution. Both left-handedess and circling a bonfire counterclockwise (towards the left hand) were enough to be evidence of witchcraft. Similar hunts spread to the United States by the end of the century, most notably the Salem witch trials, which also accepted left-handed preferences as evidence of witchery.

This fixation on left-handedness and witchery, magic, and the occult can be dismissed as a relic of an older, less civilized time period. But such an explanation seems too simple. A fear like this one, universal throughout so much of human history and through so many radically distinct cultures, seems like it must have some sort of historical basis, even if said basis is no longer valid today.

Julian Jaynes’ seminal work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, explores a number of fascinating psychological topics throughout history, including the lateralization of the brain Lee used to suggest left-handed superiority. One of Jaynes’ hypotheses, greatly simplified, suggests that the development of consciousness in the human brain included a shift from right-brain dominance to left-brain dominance.

In early civilizations, this shift may not have been universal. Jaynes discusses the Greek oracles of Delphi, who were known to go into a possession-like trance while delivering prophecies:

“And what of the neurology of such a mentality? From the model I have presented, we must naturally hypothesize that in possession there is some kind of disturbance of normal hemispheric dominance relations, in which the right hemisphere is somewhat more active than in the normal state.

In other words, if we could have placed electrodes on the scalp of a Delphic oracle in her frenzy, would we have found a relatively faster EEG (and therefore greater activity) over her right hemisphere, correlating with her possession? And particularly over her right temporal lobe? I suggest that we would.

There is at least a possibility that the dominance relations of the two hemispheres would be changed, and that the early training of the oracle was indeed that of engaging a higher ratio of right hemisphere activity in relation to the left as a response to the complex stimulus of the induction procedures. Such a hypothesis might also explain the contorted features, the appearance of frenzy and the nystagmic eyes, as an abnormal right hemisphere interference or release from inhibition by the left hemisphere.”

Remember what Lee said: the right brain controls the left hand, and thus, this possession likely was accompanied by a flurry of activity on the body’s left side. This hypothesis is supported by examples of possession in the modern world, as Jaynes notes. “At least some instances of possession begin with contortions on the left side of the body.” And he provides this story of a 47-year-old Japanese woman who claimed she was possessed by something called simply “the fox” mulitple times per day. According to her physicians:

“At first there appeared slight twitchings of the mouth and arm on the left side. As these became stronger she violently struck with her fist her left side which was already swollen and red with similar blows, and said to me “Ah, sir, here he is stirring again in my breast.” Then a strange and incisive voice issued from her mouth: “Yes, it is true, I am there. Did you think, stupid goose, that you could stop me?”

Thereupon the woman addressed herself to us: “Oh dear, gentlemen, forgive me, I cannot help it! ” Continuing to strike her breast and contract the left side of her face…the woman threatened him, adjured him to be quiet, but after a short time he interrupted her and it was he alone who thought and spoke.

The woman was now passive like an automaton, obviously no longer understanding what was said to her. It was the fox which answered maliciously instead. At the end of ten minutes the fox spoke in a more confused manner, the woman gradually came to herself and assumed back her normal state. She remembered the first part of the fit and begged us with tears to forgive her for the outrageous conduct of the fox.”

The suggestion here is not that left-handedness and possession are related. I do not expect Clayton Kershaw to begin speaking in tongues on the mound during his next start for the Dodgers. More likely, the right-brain controlled actions described above created an association between possession, demons, and other similar forms of abnormal mental behavior with the left hand, an association that became so ingrained into early conscious societies that it has rarely been questioned through the generations.

The parents and teachers who force their children to learn to write with their right hands, or the countries who have children sit on their left hand to force them to learn to eat with their right, are often doing so simply to adhere to tradition or the “proper” way. The “why” of it all is attributed to small things, like avoiding smudges with left-handed writing–a fair enough suggestion (I can recall many school days finished with my left hand covered in pencil residue) but hardly enough to account for the global and historical preference for the right hand.

The stigma around left-handedness still wasn’t totally eliminated in the 20th century. Soviet countries in particular enforced strict anti-left-handedness policies and teaching practices into the 1970s. But there has been an explosion of left-handedness in the last 100 years. Christopher McManus of University College London placed the growth from three percent at the start of the century to roughly 11 percent today. Pressure still exists–Roth cites a survey stating nearly 50 percent of left-handers born after the baby boom have experienced pressure to switch their dominant hand–but this is a far cry from tying weights to a child’s left hand, or scalding it in pot of boiling water.

Traditions of all sorts have been dying a slow death since 1900, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the rise of left-handedness and the fall of the right-handed hegemony. Still, baseball occupies a unique place in the world of handedness. Left-handers occupy a much larger part of the baseball population than the general population. Of course, some of those lefties are not true left-handers. Some, like CC Sabathia, are only left-handed for baseball purposes, and many others learn to hit left-handed while throwing right-handed to gain the platoon advantage more often.

Despite all this, the belief in right-handed superiority is far from dead, even among baseball fans. Just ask Ted Frank of Belleville, Ill., the 74-year-old author of Baseball–The Unfair Sport, a 157-page book dedicated to exposing how left-handers have unfairly exploited the rules of baseball for years. Frank rails against hitters like Garrett Jones, Andre Ethier, Skip Schumaker, and Ryan Howard, hitters who have made their living crushing right-handed pitchers but who struggle mightily against southpaws.

“I get tired of it,” Frank said. “(Lefties) strut up there like Mighty Casey. Honestly. They think they’re so great, yet you bring a left-handed pitcher in and they shrink right before your eyes. They shrink down to a wimp, a weak-hitting wimp. Ryan Howard included.” Frank also said, “If I were on the mound, Ryan Howard wouldn’t scare me if I were left-handed.” Frank, of course, is right-handed.

But despite Frank’s protests, and despite his book, left-handers continue to thrive in baseball. Some of those left-handers, in the tradition of the Waddells and Lees of the world, will be wacky (and, of course, so will some righties). Contemporaries like Phil Coke and legends like Rube Waddell alike are part of this funny piece of baseball kitsch. But its origins, tracing through the development of the conscious mind and the realm of the occult, proves to be deeper and stranger than even Spaceman Lee himself could have imagined.

References and Resources

  • Schwan, Gary. “A View From the Right: Always Keep on the Alert for Those Crafty Southpaws” The Palm Beach Post 12 Aug. 1982: B1+. Google News Archive Search. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.
  • Roth, Melissa. The Left Stuff: How the Left Handed Have Survived and Thrived in a Right-handed World. New York, NY: M. Evans and, 2005. Kindle.
  • Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Kindle.
  • Hanlon, Michael. “Why It’s Really Alright to Be Left-handed!” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 17 Sept. 2007. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.
  • Wilhelm, David. “Baseball Gives Lefties an Unfair Advantage, Author Contends.” Belleville News Democrat. N.p., 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.
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Comments

  1. John Paschal said...

    Jack, I am compelled to state that I used my right hand to scroll eagerly through this piece.

    I am compelled to state, too, that despite having a left-handed sister, I have never shopped at Ned Flanders’ Leftorium. For shame.

    Of course, I am equally compelled to state that this was a very interesting read. Nicely done!

    And I am proud to state that I used both hands to type this comment. Cheers!

  2. james wilson said...

    All right handed hitters have passed through the many levels of baseball dealing with right on right, while left handed hitters advance even as they bail on what left handed pitching they see. But there are two kinds of left handed hitters–right handed and left handed. Right handed left handed hitters stand out for their wimpiness, calculating at an early age that they did not want to deal with that level of fear. Many left handers, like Barry Bonds, have no fear of the baseball. Ricky Henderson, a true left hander, even hit from the right side. Then you have the lefties like Howard who never overcame their fear, and created an industry for mediocre relief pitchers who are left handed specialist.

  3. MikeY said...

    Jimi Hendrix made it his trademark to play a right-handed guitar with his left hand. Hendrix could play with either hand, a technique he found useful when sponsoring guitars in music stores where left-handed axes were scarce. He could probably credit his ambidexterity to his father’s sternness.

    Hendrix was raised solely by his father ever since he came back from World War II when Hendrix was three. It was his father who taught him to play an acoustic guitar. And he taught him right-handed. Hendrix naturally played left-handed, much to the dismay of his father, who thought playing left-handed was a sign of the Devil!

  4. jfree said...

    Actually the ‘crazy lefty’ bias persists in baseball. Specifically, the complete absence of lefties who are ever allowed to play catcher. Even more specifically, seven GAMES in MLB since 1905 in which a lefty has played catcher for at least ONE inning. In 1958, Dale Long started two games at 1B – and was moved to C late in the game when the C was subbed out for PH. In 1980, Mike Squires did the same thing for one game – and was himself subbed into C in the 9th inning in one game. And in 1989, Benny DiStefano did the same thing (one move from 1B to C late and two late-game sub in for C). So a grand total of ZERO games started by a lefty at catcher since 1905 – in an MLB universe of (maybe) 300,000 games started by a righty C.

    Shortstop (zero games played by a lefty since dead ball) and 2B (zero starts by a lefty since George Sisler in 1917 – Mattingly was the last lefty to ‘appear’ at 2B in the pine tar protest game) and 3B (a couple of starts since dead ball) – well maybe one can explain that as a ‘natural’ advantage for righties (in combination with an explicit rule change in 1958 that prohibited position switches between 1B (if a lefty 1B) and any other infield position during an inning).

    But there is no natural handedness advantage in playing catcher. The reason C is played by righties (apart from no lefty catchers mitts until very recently) is because C has always been seen as a ‘team leader’ and you don’t want a crazy as leader

    • jfree said...

      Actually looking at the relatively significant history of lefty catchers before 1902 – that stops on a dime after that year (the formal agreement of the National League and the American League to form ‘Major League Baseball’). My guess is that ‘no lefty catchers’ was an informal part of that agreement – prob as part of the ‘AL can raid the minor league teams of the NL for a brief window’ section. The only lefty catcher in the bigs at that time (Jiggs Donahue) was moved to 1st base for the rest of his career. And no lefty catcher in the minors then ever appeared in the majors as a C.

  5. said...

    You forgot the most obvious connection of negative overtones of left-handedness: the word sinister is from the Latin word for left-handed. I learned that from the famous book by the famous sabermetrician, Eric Walker, “The Sinister Firstbaseman”, making it all the more appropriate.

    Not really connected to this article, but I thought an interesting fact given the subject, but Pablo Sandoval is a natural lefthanded player, but he was not forced to learn to throw right-handed because of his family or anything, but he learned it on his own because his hero growing up was Omar Vizquel, and he had to be able to throw right-handed in order to play SS. Though I suppose that shows how wacky he is.

    Fun fact: he was playing 3B in the minors when a hot smash to him knocked his glove off his hand. He instinctively grabbed the ball with his LEFT hand and rifled a laser to 1B, to throw out the batter, shocking everyone in the stadium.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    It’s time to re-examine the prejudices against lefties playing traditional right-hand positions. It is possible to increase the use of athletic potential with a left-handed catcher. Catcher is a very tough position, and someone who can fill that hole, either regularly or in a pinch, would be very helpful. Three quarters of the infield must be right-handers. Is that really necessary? It’s time to work on it. It’s also time to seriously train hitters to hit against the “wrong” side pitchers and break the platoon weakness. We take things as a given rather than trying to find out or make changes. Or, for that matter, can an occasional woman play baseball on the highest level? I’ll stop short of Snoopy the dog at shortstop!

  7. Comradde PhysioProffe said...

    “The reason C is played by righties (apart from no lefty catchers mitts until very recently) is because C has always been seen as a ‘team leader’ and you don’t want a crazy as leader.”

    Is it possible that C is always played by righties because lefties are viewed as more valuable batters at other positions, where they don’t undergo the physical stresses of catching?

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