Gimme Five: How The World's Favorite Celebration Was Born
You’ve done it. I’ve done it. A majority of people on this planet have probably done it. We’ve done it out of excitement. We’ve done it out of solidarity. If you played a team sport you’ve most definitely done it. And we’ve all done it very badly at least once, before trying to redeem ourselves seconds later.
You read the title on this article, so you know I’m talking about the high five. The high five is as ubiquitous in our culture as hearing a guitar on the radio or defaulting to pizza for dinner when you don’t want to cook. That’s pretty incredible because, despite the high five’s near omnipresence, it’s technically younger than a Baby Boomer.
“Fives” had been a thing for several decades. The low-five, also known by the much dirtier sounding name “Slappin’ Skin” was made popular in the Jazz Age. No one had considered lifting a low-five up to the heavens and letting it call out for all to hear its eternal glory. The exact moment the High Five was gifted to the world is in dispute, but we do know that it came into being in the mid-1970s. In both most likely origins for the celebration, sport is front and center in the creation of the High Five.
Origin 1) 1977 - The L.A. Dodgers, Glenn Burke & Dusty Baker
Yes, Baseball fans, that Dusty Baker. On a beautiful October day, years before the Rally Monkey was a glint in his (her?) mother’s eye, Dusty Baker smashed a mighty dinger off Astros’ pitcher J.R. Richard. Glenn Burke, a man who should be known for other ground breaking merits, watched on deck as the ball sailed over the outfield fence. It was Baker’s 30th home run of the season and the Dodgers were flying high on their way to the playoffs. In a moment of sheer brilliance, Burke, who was approaching the plate for his own at-bat, put up his hand as Dusty Baker rounded third and approached home plate. Dusty did the same and as the final run was counted Baker slapped Burke’s hand.
That could have been a one-off thing, a moment where one person’s exuberant celebration made someone else panic and improvise on the spot. Burke wasn’t thinking about inventing the high five has he stared Richard down from the batter’s box and waited for the first pitch of his at-bat. He was focused and eager to put the ball in play. With a mighty crack, Burke followed Baker with a home run of his own, the first of his career. As Glenn Burke stepped into the dugout, he found Dusty Baker standing with his hand at attention. Burke smacked it with his own. At that moment a brand new, much cooler universe was instantly born on the west coast.
Origin 2) 1977-78 - University of Louisville Men’s Basketball Team, Wiley Brown & Derek Smith
Much like their namesake, the University of Louisville Cardinals Men’s Basketball team did not like to spend their time on the ground. The team was known as the ‘Doctors of Dunk’, and they served as a prototype of sorts for future razzle dazzle squads like Huston and UNLV. Two of their highest flyers, Wiley Brown & Derek Smith both hailed from rural Georgia and the two clicked almost instantly. At a practice early in the 1978-79 season, they got creative.
Wiley Brown went to give a run of the mill low five to his friend after a particularly nice play. Derek Smith stared at him and said, “No. Up high.” And shot his arm into the sky. The gesture stuck. Unlike with the Dodgers, there is even film of Cardinal players high fiving later that season. It fit their high-flying game and the showmanship they brought to the court. Now that the move had been invented on either side of the country, it was only a matter of time before it took over. By the early 80’s it was everywhere.
Now, teams high five impulsively. Psychologists think there is a correlation between improved teamwork in performance with increased physical contact with teammates. Sports gurus especially have taken this to heart. That’s why you see basketball players slap hands after a free throw or volleyball players touch after literally anything that happens. It builds solidarity.
Just thinking about giving someone a high five can improve your mood. Just think back to one of the thousands of high fives you’ve been a part of. The first one that pops into my mind happened at a Chicago Blackhawks game when it was 7 or 8. The Hawks scored and Everyone around me shot out of their seats, throwing their arms into the air. The guy sitting a row in front of me high five'd his buddies, spilling a little beer on each of them and then turned around and spotted me. He looked at me and gave me a Ric Flair WOO! And held his hand up. I smacked that thing as hard as I could. It felt like I was a part of the nuthouse in the best possible way.
Glenn Burke. Dusty Baker. Wiley Brown. Derek Smith. These men felt that first. So think about them the next time you throw a hand up high and search out the closest happy person for an outstanding celebration.