The moral basis of the ‘dropped third strike’ rule in baseball? Huh? Yes, indeed–the history and basis of this rule is rooted in wholesomeness. (The rule says if a third strike on a batter is not caught on the fly by the catcher, the batter can make a try for first base and must be tagged or thrown out).
I was recently stunned to learned that the basis of modern baseball’s odd and quirky dropped-third-strike rule can be traced back at least as early as 1796. While George Washington was still president, a book on children’s games was published in Germany (!?) by educator Johann Gutsmuths that describes a game called “Ball with Free Station–or English Base Ball.” While this was a game from England, the basic rules are clearly of a game that evolved into modern American baseball: two teams, innings, a pitcher, a batter (who used either a bat or their hand), running the bases, scoring at home base, etc.
Because this “English Base Ball” was a children’s game, the pitcher stood only a couple strides from the batter, and the ball was thrown in a high arc. Crucial to the dropped-third-strike rule is the fact that there was no catcher behind home plate in this early form of the game. There were no balls or strikes called by an umpire, and there was no strike zone. Once the ball was hit, outs were made by catching the ball, either on the fly or after one bounce (the bounce rule–or ‘bound’ rule, as they called it–only fully left American baseball in 1885, long after professional leagues had been established!), or by throwing the ball at a runner (a practice called ‘plugging’ or ‘soaking’ which remains in the modern kickball game).
But, what to do with a poor child who could never hit the pitched ball? They would never have the joy of running the bases, or even just trying to beat the throw at first on a grounder, which any modern kid knows is way better than striking out. How can all the kids, even those with poor hand-eye coordination, be included in the fun of running the bases? It is really an ethical question: how can everyone be included in the fun, trying not to make any child feel especially bad because of something they can’t control?
The answer? The dropped-third-strike rule (or, the uncaught strike rule, which is a better descriptor but rarely used).
Rather than have a child endlessly swing and miss at the ball, discouraging them and boring everyone else, the rule was established that on the third swing and miss, the batter could run to first base as if the ball had been hit into play. The pitcher would have to retrieve the ball (since there was no catcher) and try to throw the batter out before they safely reached first. With this rule, every child went to bat knowing they’d get to run to first; if they hit the ball or just swung and missed three times, it didn’t matter too much, because there was a good chance either way they’d get to first. The fun for everyone was getting outs on the base runners, not excluding runners by a strict “you’re done” strikeout rule.
It all of a sudden makes all kinds of sense, right? Even with the advent in American baseball in the 1800’s of a defensive catcher behind home plate, which was needed as the pitcher was moved further back from the batter and the ball was thrown a bit harder (though still underhand until the 1880’s), the dropped third strike rule was still important because the catcher often didn’t cleanly catch the third strike, mostly because they weren’t squatting directly behind the plate the way modern catchers do, protected by their armor. In fact, before the bounce rule was abolished, if the catcher could catch the third strike on a bounce the batter was out, just as if they had hit a ball in the field.
With the abolition of the bounce rule, meaning only balls caught on the fly were automatic outs, there was some lingering ambiguity for the uncaught third strike rule. For many years in the 1800’s, catchers who caught the ball for an out on the third strike would purposely drop it to the ground, hoping to get a double play by putting the ball back into play. This used to take unusual skill and precision from a team, so it was allowed, but as players and equipment improved, it was seen as unfair. For this reason, the rule found its modern formulation where with less than two outs a dropped-third-strike batter is only made an in-play runner if there’s not already a runner on first base.
Finally, what of the plain-old cleanly caught strikeout? As it turns out, the concept of a strikeout being necessarily bad only came about after it became quite rare to get to first base on an uncaught third strike. In thinking of the fair, moral thing to do for a child’s game without a catcher, the dropped third strike rule was installed to help the poor-hitting child have a chance to run the bases. A straight strikeout, where the child returns to the bench immediately just because they’re not very coordinated, would punish the child for what they can’t control. However, the “clean” strikeout grew to dominate the dropped-third-strike rule in American baseball as the game evolved to a highly competitive game played by men rather than just children.
It seems sublimely strange that this now insignificant rule from a child’s game centuries ago has never gone away from professional baseball. The dropped-third-strike is from a bygone era, an expression from a largely dormant segment of American baseball’s DNA. Yet, it still echoes the childish chaos and fun that we all remember and feel as that major league catcher scrambles around for the third strike in the dirt; we all instinctively perk up and think “We DO have a chance to run the bases!” It is an ancient kernel of goodness at the very heart of our national pastime.
The photo of the Gutsmuths monument is by used with permission by Brunswyk and slightly modified