The High Five Was Invented Way More Recently Than You Ever Realized

A gesture widely used as a form of congratulations, and the recipient of its own holiday, the high-five seems feels as old as human history. While some stories credit the ancient Egyptians with inventing this culturally ubiquitous gesture, the history of high-five actually goes back less than 50 years. Dating back to the late '70s, high-fiving came to be around the same time as punk rock and pet rocks. So where and how did the high-five start? No one actually knows for certain.

Many claim the gesture gained popularity via sports culture, but no common consensus points to an exact moment where the high-five came to be. Unlike awkward post-game handshakes visually recorded to the annals of history, there exists no principal video depicting the first high-five. Regardless of its backstory, what does a high-five mean? No matter the gesture's origins, what a high-five signifies does not change. High-fiving today is almost universally accepted as a symbol of excitement, congratulations, and sportsmanship. 

  • Did The First High Five Occur During A 1977 Baseball Game?

    Did The First High Five Occur During A 1977 Baseball Game?
    Photo: ESPN / YouTube

    During a 1977 baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, Dodgers player Dusty Baker hit his 30th homerun of the season.  As Baker crossed the home plate, his teammate Glenn Burke raised his hand in a gesture of congratulations. Caught up in the moment – and unsure how else to respond – Baker smacked his hand against Burke’s in his excitement. While unclear if this constitutes the first high five, the gesture received a great deal of attention

    Afterwards, the Dodgers began using the high-five afterwards as a symbol of pride for their team. While high-fiving likely occurred in some iteration before this, the moment served to popularize the gesture across America.

  • The High Five May Have Its Origins On The Basketball Court

    In addition to the Dodgers story, another story about the origins of the high-five also concerns an exchange between to sports players, Louisville Cardinals players Wiley Brown and Derek Smith during the 1978-79 season. Allegedly during practice, Brown offered Smith a low-five. At the time, the low-five remained a popular gesture among black Americans.

    Instead of returning the low-five, Smith raised his hand and said, “No, up high.” That season, the Cardinals racked up a number of slam-dunks, and Smith's remark referenced their tendency to pass the ball “up high” over the rim. Brown returned the gesture, supposedly producing the first high-five.

  • The High-Five Acted As A Symbol Of Gay Pride

    Glenn Burke, one of the alleged inventors of the high-five, faced discrimination from teammates and managers due to his sexuality throughout his baseball career. He was demoted to Triple-A Ball in 1980, and by age 27, he chose to retire. He joined a San Francisco softball league and went on to play in the Gay Softball World Series. This spread the high-five throughout the gay community during the '80s. 

    Burke officially came out as gay in 1982. Inside Sports magazine referred to the high-five as the “defiant symbol of gay pride.” Sadly, Burke, a habitual drug user, was diagnosed with HIV in 1993. He died two years later; at the time of his death, the inventor of the high-five was too weak to even lift his arms on his deathbed.

  • The High Five Evolved From The Jazz Movement's "Low Five"

    While the high-five’s precise origins remain contested, most accept the gesture evolved from the low-fives of the Jazz Age. The low-five, also known as “giving skin” or “slapping skin," was frequent gesture of camaraderie amongst jazz musicians and aficionados. 

  • The Low-Five Was A Longstanding Pop Culture Staple

    The low-five became a staple of popular culture over time. The 1927 film The Jazz Singer helped spread the gesture nationwide when Al Jolson gives a low-five. Abbot and Costello’s 1941 film In The Navy featured the song “Gimme Some Skin, My Friend” by the Andrews Sisters. Throughout the ‘70s, just before the high-five was born, Blaxploitation films frequently showed black characters exchanging low-fives on screen. 

  • National High-Five Day Was Invented In 2002

    In 2002, three students at the University of Virginia decided to found their own holiday. After some deliberation, they settled on National High-Five Day. The holiday started as a celebration on their university’s campus, but gained popularity via the Internet. By 2005, the city of San Diego officially recognized National High-Five Day. Since then, April 21st has gained nationwide recognition as the day to honor high-fiving.