You accomplish something fantastic and your friend raises his hand overhead then says, “Give Me Five.” Reflexively, you raise your hand then you slap them together. The high five is such a part of modern culture that it seems like it’s been around forever.
I’m sure that some variant of the gesture has been around ever since Neanderthals competed in friendly contests. Because the gesture is so simple and reflexive, this opinion seems rational. However, the popular act and naming of the high five is a 20th century phenomenon. We need to put the contemporary celebratory slapping gesture into the proper context.
First, there was the “low five”. The low five has been a part of American black culture since before the Jazz Age of the 1900s. One person extends the right hand outward, horizontally, then the other person slaps downward on the first hand. Usually the first person says “Low Five!” when extending the hand.
A sports version of the low five that has been around ever since the first organized team games. You’ve probably seen one team member slap the buttocks of another player. This happens in football, baseball, and in international sports. “He gave me a low five at the end of the sixth inning.”
There are a few more definitions of the low five, but most of them are crude and vulgar. I prefer to write a “G” rated blog, so I’ll not mention them.
There are several claimants as originators of the modern high five, but I consider the earliest calendar date the legitimate qualifier. The first modern high five is both a part of Major League Baseball lore and a piece of LGBT history. Plus, it was documented on television and in newspapers.
It was October 2nd, the last day of the 1977 regular season at Dodger Stadium. Los Angeles was playing the visiting Houston Astros. In the bottom of the sixth inning, LA’s Dusty Baker fired a home run to tie the contest at 2-2. As Baker touched home base, he saw rookie teammate Glenn Burke waiting with a big grin and his right hand held up high. Baker told an ESPN reporter, “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”
Burke was next up to bat. He also blasted a home run–the first of his major league career. Burke’s home run put the Dodgers into the lead. As Burke crossed home, Baker returned the favor with his own high five. Even though Los Angeles ended up losing the season closer, the high fives were remembered. The gesture soon caught on in the bullpens of other baseball teams and became the global phenomenon we have today.
As for Glenn Burke, He claimed that the high five was his invention during the rest of his life. The high five was one of Burke’s few positive highlights. The other noteworthy event was his coming out. Burke was the first and only Major League Baseball player to come out to teammates and team management in history.
The rest of Burke’s career was tainted by homophobia. At the time, Dodgers’ management was unhappy with the fact that their new player was gay. To complicate matters, Burke got on the wrong side of manager Tommy Lasorda by befriending Lasorda’s openly gay son, Tommy Junior.
The details are obscure and controversial but Los Angeles traded Burke to the Oakland Athletics for a more experienced player. The trade was unpopular with Burke’s Dodgers teammates because they had enjoyed Burke’s easy-going personality and contagious friendliness. Los Angeles’ fans were also very unhappy with the trade.
Burke later wrote that his time in Oakland was very unhappy. Much of the Oakland team displayed open hostility and homophobic behavior towards him. Manager Billy Martin once used the “f—–” slur in 1980. Some players avoided showering with Burke, too. Following an injury in 1980, Oakland sent Burke to their minor team in Ogden, Utah. He was later released from his contract before the end of the season.
At the end of Burke’s professional baseball career, he told a New York Times sports reporter that prejudice drove him out of baseball sooner than it should have. Burke had hoped that he could have broken the stereotypes. In the end he believed he had done so.
After his retirement, Burke moved to the Castro District in San Francisco and often slapped high fives with other gay residents of the neighborhood. Locals consider the high five as a symbol of gay pride and identification. Unfortunately, Burke contracted AIDS and eventually died of AIDS related complications in 1995.
Now there are many variations of the high five. We can engage in multiple partner high fives with three or more people. Also popular is the “air high five” which is usually done by two people at a distance from one another.
You don’t need a special reason to share high fives. You can enjoy one just because they’re fun to do. If you want to complete a perfect high five, just glance at the other person’s elbow as you close in for the high five. It works perfectly each time.