With the Giants home opener coming up on Friday, it’s high time to revisit how the celebratory gesture of the “high five” was invented by two San Francisco baseball giants. One was Dusty Baker, the lovable former Giants’ manager who took the team to the World Series in 2002.
The other was an Oakland native who attended Berkeley High, allegedly the first gay player in Major League Baseball to come out to his teammates. That was Glenn Burke, who tells this fascinating story in his 1995 deathbed autobiography Out at Home: The True Story of Glenn Burke, Baseball’s First Openly Gay Player, available for a mere $4.99 on Amazon Kindle.
Burke and Baker invented the high five on Oct. 2, 1977, but they were not San Francisco Giants — both played for the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
It was the final day of the 1977 regular season, and the Dodgers were on the verge of a historic record. It was the first time that four different players on the same team had all hit 30 home runs (a feat since duplicated at least a dozen times in the steroid era).
It was a big deal back then, though, made more dramatic because Dusty Baker hit that 30th home run in his final at-bat of the regular season. Glenn Burke was on deck to hit next, and threw his arm up to celebrate with Dusty, not knowing he was creating one of the great cultural sensations of the 20th century.
“Nobody had ever seen the high-five before,” Burke recalls in his autobiography. “I just put my hand up there.”
Baker confirms this account in the delightful ten-minute documentary The High Five, available for free on ESPN.com. “All I did was respond to Glenn,” Baker laughs, recalling the awkward, impromptu, first-ever high-five.
The Dodgers took on the high- five as their playoff run rally gesture (they went to the World Series that year, but lost to the Yankees). The team used the it in marketing campaigns for years afterward, but they didn’t have any use for Glenn Burke when they found out he was gay, and also romantically involved with manager Tommy Lasorda’s son, Tom Jr.
“They knew I was gay, and were worried about how the average father would feel about taking his son to a baseball game to see some fag shagging fly balls in centerfield,” Burke writes.
The Dodgers hastily traded Burke to the Oakland A’s, who at the time had a young MC Hammer as their ballboy. But they also had manager Billy Martin, who groused, “No faggot’s ever going to play on our ballclub.”
“Martin never called me a faggot to my face,” Burke says in his book. “He may have known I would’ve kicked that ass.”
But Burke’s secret was out, and he never got another call in the big leagues. He moved to the Castro and became a neighborhood folk hero, but would struggle with cocaine addiction, and died of HIV complications in 1995. It’s a sad end to a good story, but San Francisco sports fans can hold their heads high knowing that the high-five was created by one of our own trailblazing LGBTQ athletes.