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A Cultural History of Butt Slapping in Sports

Ah, Opening Day! Fresh-cut grass. Vendors hawking peanuts and beer. And grown men slapping each other on the ass.

At first blush, it seems strange that the hetero bros of Major League Baseball congratulate each with a loving (but totally not gay) pat on the ass, but such is life in the wonderful world of baseball.

The practice is so ingrained in the sport (and in sports, in general) that most players participate in it unwittingly. They give and receive ass pats without any acknowledgement of the underlying implications. One day you’re in Little League helping your teammate pierce his Capri-Sun with a straw (a Herculean task in itself), and the next you’re slapping each other on the tush.

Celebratory ass-patting falls into a larger category of straight bro behavior formally known as homosociality — straight men engaging each other in a homoerotic manner as a way of bonding and forging friendships. (Or as I like to call it: Guy Stuff.)

What’s much harder to identify, however, is just when and where the ass slap originated, and how it became an integral aspect of the homosocial sports tradition. “I can always remember [the butt slap] being a part of sports,” says Kent Stephens, the 64-year-old curator at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. But he admits he doesn’t know where the ritual came form.

The kind folks at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown were similarly stumped. “You’d think there would be some research on it,” says Cassidy Lent, the Hall’s reference librarian. Alas, there’s not, Lent says. In all of its annals, there’s nothing on butts.

Baseball players are credited with inventing — or at the very least, popularizing — the high five, however. The momentous occasion: When Dodgers outfielder Dusty Baker slapped hands (above the waist, of course) with rookie teammate Glenn Burke, after Baker homered in the last game of the 1977 season.

30 for 30 Shorts: The High Five – ESPN Video

Almost instantly, the high five became a phenomenon as an expression of raw, unbridled enthusiasm. (In a strange and depressing twist indicative of the time period, Burke was later shipped from the team for being gay, despite being beloved by his teammates and the life of the Dodgers clubhouse. He died in 1995 due to complications related to HIV.)

As for butt slapping, the earliest reference in sports I can find is from an October 19, 1973, Philadelphia Inquirer article about Penn State football’s stoic defensive set. The article identifies the Penn State defenders as outliers for not emphatically slapping each other on the ass.

There are other references to butt-slapping in sports in the 1970s as well — in wrestling and basketball in particular. In terms of the NFL, Ron Jaworski was apparently a famous ass-slapper during his storied run as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback (1974 to 1986).

Yet the database doesn’t yield any mention of ass-slapping in baseball in the 1970s, which is curious given that the act is most closely associated with the national pastime. “I definitely think of it more in terms of baseball,” Stephens says. “When a guy hits a home run, and gets a slap from the third base coach as he rounds third, that sticks out in my mind when I think of butt slapping in sports.”

Indeed, the image Stephens evokes is an indelible one — such that, when Key & Peele wanted to parody the butt-slapping tradition in sports, they chose to do it within the realm of a baseball clubhouse (as opposed to, say, a football locker room).

In 2016, during their World Series championship run, the Chicago Cubs simultaneously subverted and elevated the homosocial butt-slapping ritual by trading it out for the dick bump. Or better put, rather than pat each other’s butts after home runs, the Cubs players would stand face-to-face and thrust their genitalia into each other (like real men).

That the Cubs players felt comfortable slapping cocks speaks to the counterintuitive rules governing masculinity in sports. “Sports are interesting in that the normal rules of gender expression don’t apply,” says James Sutton, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “You think of emotion — aside from anger, men aren’t allowed to express emotion. But in the sporting context, men are allowed to cry. All these social norms seem to be suspended once you get into the locker room, or take the field.”

And those include being able to touch your bro’s ass without it being gay.

It’s interesting that we don’t see as much ass-slapping in women’s sports, Sutton continues, or in less masculine men’s sports such as golf. A possible explanation is basketball, baseball and football are so masculine they transcend homosexuality; guys can do seemingly gay stuff to each other without it being gay. There’s another Key & Peele sketch that explains that phenomenon. It has Peele doing a Mike Tyson impersonation, and repeatedly threatening to fuck (not slap) his opponent’s ass.

Again, totally not gay.