It seems absurd, but until thirty years ago nobody was high: American baseball and the first professional sportsman to come out
On October 2, 1977, at the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the United States, the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team played the last game of the season, against the Houston Astros. The Dodgers were out of the playoffs but they kept us very much, at that game, since they could have beaten a record: being the first team in the history of Major League Baseball (MLB) – the most important professional baseball league in the world – to have four batters with at least 30 home runs each. At one point only Dusty Baker was missing (the other three were Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith): Baker retorted a J.R. Richard, the Astros pitcher, made his 30th home run and the whole stadium cheered as if the Dodgers had just reached the playoffs.
Baker ran to the bench and the first to congratulate him was his teammate, a large external role nicknamed King Kong because of his strength and his build: his name was Glenn Burke and he welcomed Baker raising his right arm up with open hand. Not knowing how to respond, Baker thought first of grabbing Burke’s hand and then hit it with his right hand, keeping his arm raised too. “It seemed the most appropriate thing to do.”
This moment is now widely and more or less unanimously considered the invention of the high five, one of the most common and widespread gestures in the world, in Italy also known as “high five” and sometimes accompanied by the verbal expression “give me five” or “hit five.” Over the past few years, several American sports newspapers and newspapers – starting from some research done by ESPN – have dealt with this article and documentaries with this story and the various versions circulating about the sporting origin of the high five. Last week also the online magazine Grantland dedicated one of his short documentaries of the series “30 for 30” to the story of Burke.
Who was Glenn Burke
Glenn Burke was a modest American baseball player. He was born in Oakland, California in 1952: he played in the MLB from 1976 to 1979, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and then with the Oakland Athletics. He was a young twenty-four year old debutant when he was on the Dodgers bench, during that last game of the 1977 season. Although he wasn’t playing often he was loved by his companions: many say that he went around the locker room putting towels under the shirt to better imitate the coach, Tommy Lasorda, and that the gesture of the high five was a habitual greeting from him. In short, he was “the soul of the locker room”, to the point that when he left the Dodgers in 1978 several local sports newspapers reported some players moved.
The other thing Burke became famous for, besides the high five gesture, was that he was gay. Already in the days of the Dodgers he was well known among his companions and friends, and there was a rumor that he had a relationship with the son of the coach, Spunky Lasorda, a boy known in the gay Hollywood environment with whom Burke was, if nothing else, very close . Burke retired in the early 1980s and began to frequent the Castro district of San Francisco, the historic center of the American gay community (that of Harvey Milk), where his high five had had a very rapid popularity and circulation since 1977. Since 1980 The Dodgers began selling shirts with the “High Five” lettering and the logo of two open hands coming together, and in a promotional poster they explained: “The ‘High Five’ greeting has become the standard greeting of the Dodgers for the 1980 season. It is exchanged regularly between players after a home run, a good defensive action or a victory for the Dodgers. “
Although Burke had previously acknowledged that his companions were aware of it, he openly declared his homosexuality only in 1982, in an interview with the sports magazine Inside Sports. In 1993 he tested positive for an HIV test and on May 30, 1995 he died from the consequences of the virus contracting. A year earlier, he said in an interview with the New York Times: “Prejudice drove me out of baseball earlier than it should have happened, but it didn’t change me.” Some today argue that if he did not go down in history, as well as being the inventor of the high five, even as the first openly gay American sportsman, in an American professional league, it is not because his homosexuality was not known – it certainly was, to comrades and friends, when he played – but because the press was not ready to welcome this news.
Until his death, and even later, in the United States Burke continued to be widely believed to be the inventor of the high five; a gesture that in the meantime, since the beginning of the 1980s, had also become habitual in other sports, and which thanks to the increasingly frequent and numerous television broadcasts of the matches began to circulate rapidly also in Europe.
However, mainly after Burke’s death, other versions of the story about the sporting origin of this gesture began to circulate, so common that today it is even difficult to imagine a time when it did not exist.
Derek Smith’s version
An article in the New York Times of September 1, 1980, just about this “fashion” of five, instead cited as inventor of the gesture a certain Derek Smith, then basketball player of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA, the association that organizes the championships of American universities and colleges). The curious fact is that Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers coach in Burke’s time, was mentioned in the article among the members who had recently joined the growing list of “high-fivers”, without Burke ever being mentioned in the piece (Lasorda said he didn’t know where the fashion had started).
In 1978 Derek Smith played in the Louisville Cardinals, the college basketball team of Louisville, Kentucky. It is said that during the 1978-79 season – therefore at least a year after Burke’s story – Smith used to have a high five with his companions during training, and that it all began one day when his teammate Wiley Brown went to him to train to give him a “low five” (a low five, a common gesture and already widespread in African American culture since the Second World War, at least, writes ESPN). At that point, looking him in the eye, Smith would have said to Brown: ‘Not like that. High! », And therefore Brown would have answered him with a” high five “. «I thought: right, why do we make it low? Let’s jump so high, ”Brown said then.
There is at least one movie dating back to that season that shows Louisville Cardinals players swapping high five, or some kind of high five, during a game, and was also televised. At a certain point, after a good deed by Brown, the speaker says: «Brown started playing! And his companions are giving him the “high five” handshake », and this would attest that the practice already had at least its relative notoriety. However, it is also the first time that the gesture was made during a game broadcast on television, since the 1977 baseball game of the Dodgers had no television coverage, and of that Burke gesture today only a photograph circulates.
This second version of the high five story was reconstructed by ESPN in 2011 starting from the story of Brown, and not of Derek Smith, who had meanwhile died in 1996 from heart disease. It is therefore not possible to establish where Smith got the idea of the high five from and if at the time he was aware of the popularity that meanwhile that gesture was gradually acquiring in California.
The hoax version of Lamont Sleets
Starting in 2002, a rather unusual third version of the origins of the high five began to circulate in the United States, whose invention began to be attributed to a certain Lamont Sleets, a former basketball player from Murray State University, Kentucky , active between 1979 and 1984. According to this third version, Sleets’ father was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War, in the fifth division of the first infantry battalion, nicknamed “The Five”. Sleets learned the gesture of high five as a child, seeing his father exchange it with his fellow battalion when they went to visit him at home: with his arm raised and his hand open, they shouted “Five!” and they hit five. When he saw them coming, the little Sleets greeted them all one by one screaming “Hi, Five!” (Hi, Five!), Because he did not remember their names individually, and tried to reach their hand with a jump, imitating their official greeting.
Later, the ESPN journalist who reconstructed the high five story – unable to get in touch with Sleets himself – discovered that it was a totally invented story put into circulation by the two authors Conor Lastowka and Greg Harrell-Edge , organizers of the National High Five Day (yes, there is one, in the United States, and is held every year on the third Thursday of April).