No one ever high-fived Babe Ruth. That is likely a fact.
Legendary for his 714 career home runs and indulgent off-the-field exploits, Ruth seems like the sort of character that would have been mashing high fives with nearly as much frequency as he was crushing hot dogs, gulping beers, clouting dingers and maybe even stumbling home from brothels.
Why didn't the Bambino ever raise his arm and slap five fingers and a palm with any of his teammates or fellow carousers?
The "high five" apparently didn't exist yet.
Was there a high five at home plate for Bobby Thomson after he hit his "Shot Heard 'Round The World" to lift the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in 1951? Nope. How about when light-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski smacked the second pitch he saw from Ralph Terry over the ivy-covered left-center-field wall at Forbes Field to win Game 7 of the 1960 World Series? It sure doesn't look like it. Instead, players embrace, leap up and down in unison, slap each other on the back, and even shake hands.
Pirates third base coach Frank Oceak was holding down a prime high-fiving position as Maz jubilantly bounded around the bases, but he merely offered a back slap as home run hero turned the corner toward home plate. When Ruth had clouted the first home run in All-Star Game history in 1933, he'd gotten a similar slap on the back, with the cap of the American League's first base coach.
Fast forward to the 1976 ABA Dunk Contest, a game-changing moment in sports and an unimpeachably awesome moment. How is Julius Irving greeted after pulling off an array of seismic slams? Well, Dr. J is greeted sort of like a doctor, with hand shakes and waist-high hand slaps and claspings best described as "low fives," a halfway point step between the handshake and hand gesture that is poised to dominate athlete interactions until the explosion of the fist bump.
To commemorate National High Five Day -- celebrated annually on the third Thursday of April -- it's important to remember the time when even our most beloved heroes went without this gesture of celebration.
Less than two years after Irving threw down his iconic free-throw line jam in Denver, what is widely considered the first high five took place at Dodger Stadium. Writing for The Diamond Angle in 1995, Bob Brigham (H/T to Outsports for republishing Brigham's piece in 2003) identified the potentially pioneering high five as being initiated by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke and consummated with teammate Dusty Baker to celebrate a milestone home run on Oct. 2, the final day of the regular season. With Burke standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of sixth inning against the Houston Astros, Baker crushed his 30th longball of the '77 campaign (a tally Ruth reached or surpassed 13 times). Burke raised his arm as Baker approached and the slugger raised his arm as he reached his teammate. The pair slapped hands well above their heads and history may have been made. Fresh off the high five, Burke stepped up to the plate and cracked a home run of his own, pushing the Dodgers ahead of the Astros, 3-2. The Dodgers went on to win the NL Pennant in 1977 and again in '78, giving the team plenty to celebrate with this new gesture.
Sadly, Burke would be traded during the '78 season, as his career sputtered. While writing a profile of Burke -- whose potential went unfulfilled during a tumultuous career many believe was derailed due to his homosexuality -- for Inside Sports magazine in 1982, writer Michael J. Smith portrayed Burke's high five as a symbol of gay pride, per The Week.
In July 2011, Jon Mooallem of ESPN The Magazine published an in-depth investigation into the origins of the high five, detailing the Dodgers' contribution but also positing a multiple discovery theory. The other possibile pioneers cited by Mooallem are the members of the men's basketball team at Louisville during the 1978-79 season. Known as the "Doctors Of Dunk," the Cardinals can be seen on highlight reels (are they still "reels" on YouTube?) exchanging high fives. According to Mooallem, Derek Smith was offered yet another low five after yet another standout play but directed his teammate to meet him "Up high."
Of course, that direction would have more than a year after Baker knocked that homer in Oct. '77. Could Smith, a Georgia native, have seen enough footage of the Dodgers to be miming their gesture? Or maybe the invention of the high five is a true case of independent discovery. Maybe Burke and Smith are to the high five as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz are to calculus. Perhaps we were just due for the high five and it burst forth spontaneously in Los Angeles and Louisville in short order as the 1970s wound down.
Regardless of whether the first high five was shared between Burke and Baker or some other yet to be uncovered pair, National High Five Day affords us all a chance to go out and high five someone, perhaps even a stranger. Even if it's your first, the move will put you one ahead of the Sultan of Swat for anyone scoring at home.
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