Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don’t Leave Me Hangin’: A Brief History of the High Five

What’s the first thing you do after finishing a heart-pounding workout at your CrossFit box (other than making sweat angels on the floor and gasping for air)? You give high fives and fist bumps to those who’ve suffered through the WOD with you, right?

If you don’t, you’re kind of a butthole. And there’s no better time to start slapping the damp, upraised hand of your fellow metcon warrior. After all, today’s the third Thursday of April, which means it’s National High Five Day. (Really.)

But what exactly is the point, you ask, of violently striking the palm of another human being? How did stinging hand pain come to signal camaraderie or congratulations? And what about the germs?

Here’s the backstory:

Before the high five existed, there was the handshake -- a sign of peace (bare hands = no weapons) dating back to ancient Greece.

In more recent centuries, the expansion of the British Empire popularized the use of handshakes as a form of greeting, celebration, and farewell.

But handshakes weren’t cool enough for the musicians of the Jazz Age. They came up with what we now call a “low five,” which soon made its way into blues and other musical genres. At the time, this was known as “slapping skin” or “giving skin” -- but celebratory low fives were viewed as a gesture used only in African American communities.

Case in point: In the 1941 Abbott & Costello movie “In the Navy,” the Andrews Sisters sing this little ditty:

If you want to shake my hand
Like they do it in Harlem,
Stick your hand right out and shout:
Give me some skin, my friend!

Over the years, the term “giving skin” evolved into “giving five,” and with greater exposure to black culture in popular media in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans of all racial backgrounds began slapping each other’s hands. Even Bob from Sesame Street got in on the action.

More after the jump, including gay baseball players, child endangerment, terrorism and cartoon superheroes...

But as we all know, there’s a world of difference between giving someone five, and giving someone a HIGH five. A low five is laid back, while a high five is typically more forceful and emphatic, punctuating the celebratory message with a big ol’ exclamation point. It’s the difference between saying: “hey, congrats” and “OMFG! AWESOME JOB!!!”

By most accounts (though not all), the first recorded high five took place between Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Burke was in the on deck circle when Baker hit his thirtieth home run of the season, and greeted his teammate at home plate with an upraised hand. Baker raised his as well, and history was made.

Baker, of course, is the current manager of the Cincinnati Reds (and former manager of the Cubs and Giants) whose three-year-old kid almost got trampled at home plate during the 2002 World Series.

Tragically, Burke died of AIDs at the young age of 42, having spent the last few months of his life “wandering the streets of San Francisco.” The disease that claimed his life “had taken his once magnificent physique to a lesion-scarred, wasted 150 pounds,” and in the end, “[t]he man who greeted Dusty Baker at home plate in 1977 could barely lift his arm.”

In any event, Burke and Baker started something special. Athletes and sports teams across the country began high fiving each other. Most notably, in 1980, the University of Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team prominently showcased the high five in their run-up to the NCAA championship.

And since then, the high five has become a part of just about every competitive athletic ritual known to American sports. You do it, and I do it. That is, unless one or both of us have sweaty/bloody/germ-infested hands, in which case we can go with a fist bump (a.k.a. the "terrorist fist jab").