After yesterday’s media ban in the locker rooms and the warnings about person-to-person contact handed down to the players and coaches, let’s take a look at one of the most iconic ways players interact in baseball: the high five.
When a Dodger hitter slams a ball into the pavilions at Dodger Stadium, you can count on three things. One, Dino Ebel will give them five as they round third. Two, they will exchange high fives with whomever’s on deck and any runners they might have hit in. Three, they will run the gauntlet of high fives down the dugout, smacking hands with every man on the team.
In the stands, fans will high five friends, family, and complete strangers alike. The high five is deeply ingrained into Dodger culture. And it should be. A Dodger invented it.
To find the origins of the high five, you have to go back to the seventies, to a time when pretty much the whole world was a weirder, wilder place. One look at the 1977 roster and several big names will jump out at you.
The year before, in 1976, Rick Monday was involved with an incident between two protestors who were attempting to burn an American flag on the field at Dodger Stadium. He was the Cub’s centerfielder at the time, and, seeing the two protestors rush the field and start to douse a flag with lighter fluid, he ran in and snatched the flag away from them, earning himself a presidential commendation from President Ford. He was traded to the Dodgers for the 1977 season. In 1981, Monday hit the homer that would send his team to the World Series and end what would be the Expos final chance at winning the pennant. Montreal baseball fans still refer to that day as Blue Monday, because, as chance would have it, the game was played on a Monday. The Dodgers would go on to defeat the Yankees to win the World Series that year. He’s now of course one of the broadcasters for Dodger Radio on AM 570.
Another name that pops out is perhaps the name most often said in baseball, but not usually in reference to the player himself. Pitcher Tommy John had by 1977 already undergone the surgery that bears his name and was right in the middle of a professional career that spanned twenty six years in the majors.
Other names on the roster include the 1974 MVP first baseman Steve Garvey (now also an occasional Dodger Radio personality), pitcher Don Sutton (seventh on the list of all-time strikeouts at 3,574), and Reggie Smith (once jumped into the stands to punch a mouthy Giants fan). Also on the roster is Dusty Baker. He might be the new 2020 Astros manager, but this will be the fifth team he’s managed since taking a skipper role.
It was one name, Glenn Burke, who would leave the most enduring legacy, not just in baseball, but in all of American pop culture. He’s known best for two things: being the first openly gay Major League Baseball player and inventing the high-five.
According to other players, Burke was a magnetically happy presence in the locker room, beloved by all. Davey Lopez called him the “life of the team.” Even from his rookie year on, his teammates appreciated his positive attitude – his sexuality was an open secret that no one seemed to care about. Burke even dared to occasionally stuff his shirt with towels and waddle around the clubhouse, imitating manager and Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda and somehow he got away with it like no one else could. It seems appropriate that an enduring expression of joy and excitement should come from such a person.
It was October 2, 1977, the last game of the regular season versus the Huston Astros. Dusty Baker had just hit his 30th home run of the season, becoming the fourth such Dodger to do so that year. It was the first time in baseball history that a team had ever accomplished such a feat and the dugout was celebrating. As Baker was heading back to the dugout, Burke raised his hand over his head and the rest is baseball history.
“His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back. So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do,” said Baker in a interview for ESPN.
The Dodgers embraced the gesture, even issuing a poster featuring a staged high five during the 1980 season. And while the players embraced Glenn Burke and his boundless enthusiasm, the Dodgers front office did not. In a cloud of rumors surrounding Tommy Lasorda’s son, Tom Lasorda, Jr., Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s, where the locker room culture was not as accepting of him.
“There’s no justification for it,” said Burke’s agent Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim about the trade. “You couldn’t have found one player in the locker room that felt good about it.”
While the Oakland team did not welcome Burke, San Francisco and the Castro did and he thrived there. Once he retired from baseball, he got involved in the Gay Olympics (now known as the Gay Games) and was seen as a hero in the community. They looked to him as breaking the stereotype of what a gay man could be – strong, athletic, and masculine, traits that the public was unwilling to recognize in a gay man at the time. He would often be seen leaning on cars, giving out his now-famous high fives. Unfortunately, his story ends sadly. After a slide into drug addiction and an incident with being hit by a car that made it worse, Burke contracted AIDS and died in 1995. He never blamed his drug addiction on anyone or anything, but he maintained until his dying day that baseball excluded him because he was gay. His years with the Dodgers, especially in the minors, was some of the best baseball years of his life.
I think it’s fitting that the Dodgers still high five in the dugout after a home run. I think it’s fitting that an expression of excitement and joy is Glenn Burke’s legacy.
It’s not hubris to know that the Dodgers are going to send more than a few balls out of the park this year. There’s going to be cause for many high fives all season. Perhaps, every now and then, as you satisfyingly smack your hand to another’s, think of Glenn Burke, the man who defied convention and lived his truth, and the 1977 Dodger team who embraced him for it.