The Magazine

Bye, Bye, High Five

Joseph Epstein, handshake man

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Time to declare a moratorium on the high five. That combination salute and handshake has been around for more than 30 years, and is now entering the stage of the perfunctory, perhaps even the otiose. The other evening, watching a White Sox game, I saw a player hit by a pitch replaced by a pinch-runner and returned to the Sox dugout forced to undergo from all his teammates a full round of high fives, with a few head rubs and bottom pats thrown in at no extra charge. Perfunctory, I call that, otiose. 

Bye, Bye, High Five

David Clark

I am equally eager to see an end to the low five; the side five; the high-low five; the fist bump; the handshake and shoulder bump; the handshake, half hug, and double-back pat (President Obama’s masculine greeting of choice); and the leaping chest bump. I have myself participated over the years in perhaps 20 high fives, a few of them with strangers at sports events, but never without a nagging feeling of falsity. I am a straight handshake man, and a handshake man I wish to remain.

“You call that a handshake?” I can recall my father saying to me when I was five or six years old. “That’s a dead fish you just gave me. A real man shakes hands with firmness.” And he grasped my hand, lost in his much larger one, with a reassuring squeeze. The simple masculine handshake is not quite gone, but one senses that it has become a touch drab, square, yes, honky.

Google recounts the controversy over who threw the first high five. Some claim it was between Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke, then both of the Los Angeles Dodgers, in late 1977. The University of Louisville Cardinals are said to have widely popularized it during their run to the 1980 NCAA basketball championships. A man, Lamont Sleets, was reported to have first used the high five in the 1960s, when greeting his father and his four buddies from Vietnam, exclaiming, “Hi, Five.” Later the Sleets story was revealed to be a hoax. But whoever invented the wretched thing should not be any prouder of it than, say, those false geniuses who gave us the electric hand dryer and the hospital gown.  

The high five and its variations are part of the empty triumphalism that has overtaken sports and spread to life outside sports in recent decades. In an earlier time, people saved strong congratulations for truly momentous victories: winning the final game of the World Series or the Stanley Cup, Wimbledon, an Olympic marathon run, the Kentucky Derby, and a few other select events.

Now we have the touchdown dance, the sack dance, the Tarzan-of-the-apes scream after the slam dunk, the triple fist pump and knee raise after winning a mere point in tennis. They go too far, all of them. A good winner has felt, and thereby understands, the funk of defeat; he knows that the best man doesn’t always win; and so he is therefore generous in victory. Gracious winning was part of what used to be called sportsmanship.

Difficult to say exactly when sports decided it could do without sportsmanship. Perhaps it began with football, professional football especially, where a team can get a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration. In college football, one can celebrate but not taunt an opponent, but players, feeling it worth the penalty, do it anyhow.

In baseball, at the conclusion of each game, the winning team parades onto the field, and the players form a double row to exchange high fives with one another. During the game itself, there is the home-run trot, the finger pointing to heaven demonstrating that the player has God on his side, the double-leg stomp at home plate to signify scoring the winning run. All that is missing, really, is a net and trident. 

Tennis was a game that once had an etiquette for victory and for close calls. Enter those stinkers Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Connors stirred up crowds with yells, fist pumping, and pelvis grinding. McEnroe treated linesmen and umpires as if he were a Russian count and they his incompetent serfs. Exeunt the elegance of good manners. In basketball, trash talk is now a regular part of the game. 

Golf may be the last game that still values sportsmanship. Players have been known to disqualify themselves for using the wrong ball or having too many clubs in their bag. In recent years, a bit of fist pumping, usually after making a lengthy or tricky putt, has come into play. But there is nothing of the mean-spiritedness of triumphalism in golf that one finds in other sports. 

As for the high five, the next time anyone offers you one, meet his upraised hand with the small end of your fist while extending your thumb outward. The meeting forms a perfect picture of a turkey, a word—“Turkey”—you then call out. He’ll never throw another high five without giving it a serious second thought.

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