When a spectator at a New York-Tampa game, played at the Met’s Citi Field, expressed his displeasure at a home run by Yankees third baseman, Todd Frazier, with an extended thumb down, it was seen by millions.
The gesture, seen by most people as a sign of disapproval, was soon adopted by the Yankee players to celebrate a hit or other positive play. In this way, it can be seen as a signal of defiance, sort of an “us against the world” sort of sentiment.
Yet as Professor Ori Soltes points out in his latest book, God and the Goalposts: A Brief History of Sports, Religion, Politics, War, and Art, we don’t really know what the gladiator era hand gesture exactly signified:
When a man went down, the amphitheatre resounded with cries of habet, hoc habet!—“He’s had it!” (literally, “He has it!”)—and with cries of mitte! (“Let him go!”; literally, “Send forth/away!”) or ugula! (“Kill [him]!”). A mortally wounded fighter (in other words: already dying) was not killed before the arena audience but was carried from the site to be properly killed away from public view. One fallen, but not yet fatally, would lay down his weapon if he could, and raise his index finger (usually of the left—or in Latin, sinister—hand) to ask for mercy from his opponent, the judge, and/or the crowd. If the spectators approved that he be spared, because
he had fought gallantly enough, they would signify that approval by turning their thumbs: police verso—“with the thumb turned.” But the interesting thing is that we have no clear idea of whether verso—“turned”—means turned up or turned down, so in spite of the evolution of the English phrases “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” to signify approval and disapproval respectively, we cannot with any certainty say which direction the Romans were signifying.
The Yankees players may have inadvertently gotten it right.