Whether you’re playing with a toddler, just scored big during a group kickball game or pulled off an insane run of cornhole, you’ve definitely thrown your hand up, palm out, seeking someone else to give you a good slap in celebration. And we’ve also all been there when you go up for a high five and get left hanging, forcing you to pretend you were reaching up to fix your hair or something.
It’s a pretty arbitrary gesture for what it denotes: kudos, achievement, cheerfulness, etc. Standard applause works just fine to acknowledge some kind of successful performance or triumph, and verbalizing our encouragement usually does the job, anyway. Nevertheless, it’s a go-to expression. While you’d think it’s been around forever (or, at least since the general population stopped being so stuffy), the first talked-about instances of the high five are from just a handful of decades ago -- around the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The low five, though, has been a thing since the ‘20s-ish. It was a big thing among the African American population and especially in the jazz community. Musicians like Al Jolson, Cab Calloway and the Andrews Sisters made “slapping skin” a ~thing~.
The high five didn’t really exist until Oct. 2, 1977 at Dodger Stadium, the last day of the regular season, when outfielder Dusty Baker grand slammed a homer for the Los Angeles team in a historical play (they became the first team in MLB history to have four players hit 30 home runs). As Baker rounded home plate, rookie Glenn Burke, who was hanging outside the dugout, on deck to bat next, rushed him with his hand in the air.
According to ESPN, the intensity of the moment is what did it. “Glenn put his arm high in the air, and Dusty didn't know what to do, so he slapped it,” Dodgers historian Mark Langill said in the documentary “The High Five.”
Journalist Jon Mooallem told the outlet, “The way [Burke] used to tell the story of that first high five with Dusty Baker, [it] wasn't necessarily that he had innovated something so much as that he was so overwhelmed with joy and pride of what Dusty had just done, that the high five came out of him, that Dusty had brought it out of him.”
After Baker and Burke’s new personification of joy, the Dodgers adopted the high five and did it regularly throughout the next few seasons, using it as a symbol of pride. Eventually, it also became a symbol of gay pride in a San Francisco neighborhood after Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s, likely due to his outed homosexuality.
There’s another story of the high five’s origin, however: The Louisville Cardinals also stake a claim around the same time. During the 1978-79 season, they say, Wiley Brown went to give teammate Derek Smith a low five, and Smith responded, “No. Up high.”
Now, there are enough variations of the high five to keep us plenty busy off the baseball field or basketball court. Like the annoying “up high, down low, too slow” situation. Or how Howie Mandel basically trademarked the fist bump so he wouldn’t have to touch anyone’s palms. Air fives are always a hoot, and when you need a little self-encouragement, bringing your own two palms together for a self high five is always an option.