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INFIELD CHATTER: The dropped-third strike rule: Why?

One of the lesser appreciated aspects of coaching youth baseball the last two seasons has been a chance to dissect the game.

You see a lot of weird things in Little League, mostly unintentional, and there are young umpires just learning that unique craft in the mix. Not to mention different ground rules depending on where you happen to be scheduled for a given game, and the jugging of level-specific limitations that aren’t quite “real” baseball.

For example, last spring season my son’s level would allow baserunners to steal only one base per batter, and never home. But in summer ball kids could take leadoffs and dash home on passed balls. Then in this spring season the wall at third returned, but kids could take second and third on consecutive pitches, yet could only run home if the catcher’s throw got away from the third baseman.

Just because all the managers sorted these things out at the preseason meeting in April doesn’t mean we all had the same understanding when the playoffs started in June. Fortunately everyone has been amiable and, more importantly, interested in rules that give kids the chance to decide the outcome based on skill and effort, not errors and happenstance.

One thing the kids haven’t yet gotten to work with is the dropped-third strike rule. It’s a good thing, too, because for all the games I played and umpired in my youth, not to mention countless hours following pro teams, I was stumped last week when I came across the question of why the rule even exists.

I do know the rule: if first base is open with zero or one out, or in any situation with two outs, the catcher has to hold on to strike three or the batter is allowed to try to reach first base. It’s a force out situation, no tag needed, and the vast majority of such plays end up with a simple toss from the catcher to the first baseman. But why?

That question brought me to the good people at the Society of American Baseball Research — they put the SABR in sabermetrics — and an article by Richard Hershberger (https://sabr.org/research/dropped-third-strike-life-and-times-rule) published in the Spring 2015 Baseball Research Journal.

Hershberger said the dropped-third strike is only understood in context or the origin of the strikeout itself, which he traced (astoundingly!) to a book of children’s games published in 1796 by German physical education advocate Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths, better known for his gymnastics textbook published three years earlier.

That 1796 book contained rules for “Ball with Free Station — or English Base-ball,” and although it differs greatly from modern baseball, the game Gutsmuths described allowed batters only three swings, lest the game grind to a halt. On the third swing, with or without contact, the batter had to run to first.

The 1845 Knickerbocker written rules accounted for a catcher, an unneeded position in Gutsmuths’ account. As with batted balls, any third strike the catcher caught on the fly or with one bounce was an out. Starting in 1864, fair balls had to be caught in the air to be outs. But it wasn’t until 1868 that written rules clarified the third strike wasn’t a fair ball, and could still be caught on one bounce.

By 1879, no ball that hit the ground, fair, foul or called strike, could be caught for an out. But skilled catchers could still intentionally drop a pitch and get a double play if a runner on base were forced to advance. That led to the 1887 amendment making strikeouts automatic with a runner already on first and fewer than two outs.

“What is the place of the rule today?” Hershberger asks in conclusion. “It could be abolished and few would notice. Neither, on the other hand, is there any movement to abolish it. It flies under the radar. Absent a reform movement to completely rewrite the rules, it will remain indefinitely. It is a quirky rule, seemingly without purpose, a vestige of baseball’s earliest days. It is part of the charm of the game.”

Regardless of the rule’s value, Hershberger’s essay is an excellent read. I’m quite alright not having to teach this quirk.

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