The Dark History Behind the High Five

If you were born in or after the 1980s, you may take the “high five” for granted. I certainly did. But the high five has a much more recent (and sordid) history than you might think.

Despite several myths, the true origin of the high five is a spontaneous celebratory gesture from the charismatic baseball player Glenn Burke.

Burke adopted the high five as his personal greeting, high-fiving people all over the place for the rest of his life. A life that was made quite difficult afterward. Burke was gay, and in the late 1970s, that was trouble for professional sports. Homophobia led to an abrupt trade from the Dodgers to the lackluster Oakland As. The discrimination followed him there, and eventually forced Burke into retirement. His life spiraled out of control, leading to a drug habit. He died of complications related to HIV/AIDs in 1995. 

Meanwhile, the high five had been adopted as a symbol of gay pride, and as a promotional trademark of the Dodgers – Burke’s old teammates. As Burke’s life fell apart, the gesture that became his legacy took off. 

Photo Source Copyrighted, under fair use for visual identification of the person in question, at the top of his/her biographical article 


Burke, waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” says Baker, now 62 and managing the Reds. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”
ESPN: History of the High Five

 

He couldn’t hold a job. He went broke. He did some time at San Quentin for grand theft. Then in 1993, he tested positive for HIV. He passed away on May 30, 1995, after a sharp and grisly decline. One obituary noted that, at the end, the man who invented the high five “could barely lift his arm.”
ESPN: History of the High Five

 

Podcast on Glenn Burke and his life from The Dollop.

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