There are a few origin stories for the hand gesture known as the “high five”. But today just happens to be the anniversary of one particular story in 1977: the story of Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker.
It was a huge moment in Dodger Stadium during the sixth inning. The team was on it’s way to a National League pennant. On top of that, Baker had just made his 30th home run of the season, giving the Dodgers a record (being the first team with 30 home runs for four hitters). Running across home plate, Baker saw Burke raising his hand to greet him in celebration. In an article from 2011, Baker commented, “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.”
Dusty Baker’s career continued on pretty successfully. He went on to win three League Championship series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977, 1978, and 1981. In 1981, the team even landed the World Series title. His baseball career lasted for 20 years in total, playing for the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Oakland Athletics. After retiring, he didn’t leave the field but remained as a manager for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds.
Glenn Burke’s story is more difficult to hear. He left professional baseball altogether at age 27. In his words, “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.” Burke had come out as homosexual, and remains, to this day, the only openly gay baseball player in the Major League. Interestingly, though the world around him didn’t like that, he was “sure his teammates didn’t care.”
Burke moved to the Castro district of San Francisco after retiring, where the high five became a symbol of gay pride among the residents. But he wasn’t done with all athletics yet. He went on to run in the first Gay Games in 1982, winning medals in 100 and 200 meter sprints. In the 1986 games he competed as a basketball player.
His life began to turn when cocaine entered the picture, taking his money and ruining him physically. His leg and foot were permanently injured after he was hit by a car in 1987 and soon was arrested for drugs. After release, he lived on the streets often turning to crime. Jack McGowan, former sports editor, said in an interview,
You can’t tell the truth about Glenn without saying bad things, because he’s gone through a hell of a 10-year period where he hit rock bottom and did many personal things that are bad
But the gay community has not given up on him. He hasn’t been deserted. Many, many gay people have tried to help him because they loved him and because he was a hero. He still is a hero.
Come 1994, news broke that Burke had contracted AIDS. Luckily, he was not entirely alone in his fight, the Oakland Athletics organization stepped up to help financially. The same year he told People magazine:
My mission as a gay ballplayer was the breaking of a stereotype … I think it worked … They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.
May 30, 1995, at a hospital in San Leandro, California, Burke succumbed to AIDS complications, dying at age 42. Last year, he was among the first inductees of the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. This year it was announced that the MLB was formally recognizing Burke as baseball’s gay pioneer. Though he is known more for inventing the high five, Glenn Burke broke barriers that remain difficult to cross to this day.