First of all, this rule goes back to the very beginning of baseball.
It appears as Rule #11 of the original rules of the Knickerbocker Base
Ball Club of 1845:
"11TH. Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught,
is a hand-out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound
source: Library of Congress
The 1845 rule is also discussed in these newsgroup messages:
Another newsgroup message cites an 1857 rule book:
"1857 rule book:
Section 10: Strikeout. If three balls are struck at and missed, and
last one is not caught either flying or upon the first bound, it shall
considered fair and the striker must attempt to make his base.
Section 12: Strikeout. [The batter is out] if three balls are struck
and missed and the last is caught either before touching the ground or
upon the first bound."
The bottom line is that, under baseball's original rules, a dropped
third strike was essentially equivalent to hitting a fair ball (i.e.,
the batter must run the bases). Baseball's 1876 rules were essentially
'Rule V, section
7 of the 1876 rules reads:
"Should the batsman fail to strike at a good ball, or should he strike
and fail to hit the ball, the umpire shall call "one strike", and "two
strikes", should he again fail. When two strikes have been called,
should the batsman not strike at the next good ball the umpire shall
warnm him by calling "good ball". But should he strike at and fail to
hit the ball, or should he fail to strike at or to hit the next good
ball, "three strikes" must be called, and the batsman must run to
first as in the case of hitting a fair ball."'
source: newsgroup message archived by Google Groups
Thus, the batter is supposed to behave on the third strike as if he
had hit a fair ball. As a result, the defense must get him out in one
of the usual ways (i.e., catching the ball in the air, tagging him
out, or throwing him out at one of the bases).
The catcher, like any other member of the defense, may catch the ball
in the air. If he does, then it's an out, and that's what happens for
most third strikes, of course.
Now, you might still wonder about the logic behind this rule. Why
treat a third strike like a fair ball? What was the rationale for
Here's a pretty good way of looking at the issue:
"In baseball, the batter can only advance by putting the ball in play.
Moreover, the batter only has three chances (ie strikes) to
put the ball in play. If, on the third chance, he doesn't hit
the ball, it goes into play automatically. If the catcher catches
the ball on the third strike, then it is like a line drive caught
by the fielder, and the batter is out."
Also, observers have pointed out that baseball evolved from cricket
and there is a similar rule in cricket:
An alternate way of looking the issue is to consider the point of view
of the defense. Think about the main ways that the defense makes outs
(i.e., catching fly balls, tagging runners, and throwing runners out
on a base). In all of those situations, the defense has possession
and control of the ball at the time that the out is called. Now
consider a situation where a third strike is called but the ball is
not caught by the catcher. Rather than asking why shouldn't that be an
out, an alternate question is why should that be an out? Yes, the
pitcher has succeeded in throwing three strikes, but the defense has
failed to execute the final step of the out (i.e., having possession
and control of the ball). Why make an exception here and say that the
defense gets to have an out called even though they lacked possession
and control of the ball?
Some observers essentially make the same point:
"No mystery here. In order to have an out, someone has to catch the
"For any out, the defense must be in control of the ball. Drop a fly
ball, the batter is not out; drop the ball on a play at first, the
batter-runner is not out; drop the ball on a tag, the runner is not
out. And so on. It is no different on a dropped third strike.
Catching the third strike is a natural thing to require."
"The logic, to me, would seem thus: a strikeout is a putout, made
by the catcher, and probably not unlike a force out of sorts. To
make a putout, the fielder has to demonstrate control of the ball.
Dropping the 3rd strike obviously does NOT demonstrate control of
the ball, therefore the batter is not out unless he can be tagged or
forced at first."
source: newgroup message
Now, there are exceptions, of course, to concept of requiring the
defense to have control of the ball for there to be an out. The
"infield fly" rule and the third strike "foul bunt" rule are examples.
However, these are newer rules that were adopted well after baseball
had been established. A foul bunt wasn't even considered a strike
until 1894, and the infield fly rule wasn't adopted until 1895. See
Baseball Almanac: Rule Changes
search terms (on google & google groups):
"third strike rule", dropped, catcher
"third strike", knickerbocker, rules
rules, "Control of the ball"
I hope this helps. If anything is unclear, please use the "request
clarification" feature. Thanks.