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.
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.
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.
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.
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.