This term for a cramp or pulled muscle in the leg is originally a baseball term, or at least it first gained widespread use in baseball jargon. The reference is a mystery. No one knows who Charley was or why he may have had a lame horse.
The earliest known use of the term is from the Boston Globe, 17 July 1886:
Several years ago, says the Chicago Tribune, Joe Quest, now of the Athletics, gave the name of “Charlie horse” to a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh, to which base ball players are especially liable from the sudden starting and stopping in chasing balls, as well as the frequent slides in base running. Pfetlor, Anson and Kelly are so badly troubled with “Charley horse” there are times they can scarcely walk. Gore had it so bad he had to lay off a few days, and is not entirely free from it now. Williamson, too, has had a touch of it.1
(A search of the ProQuest archives of the Chicago Tribune fails to turn up the story about Joe Quest referenced in the above quotation.)
There are any number of tales about who Charley was. Sometimes he owned a lame horse and in others he was a lame horse. Perhaps the most plausible tale is one that again involves baseball player Joe Quest. First told in the Grand Rapids, Michigan Daily Democrat on 28 June 1889:
A Newcastleman gives the origin of Charley horse. Years ago, Joe Quest was employed as an apprentice in the machine shop of Quest & Shaw in Newcastle, his father, who was one of the proprietors of the firm, had an old white horse by the name of Charley. Doing usage in pulling heavy loads had stiffened the animal’s legs so that he walked as if troubled with strained tendons. Afterwards, when Quest became a member of the Chicago club, he was troubled, with others, with a peculiar stiffness of the legs, which brought to his mind the ailment of the old white horse Charley. Joe said that the ball players troubled with the ailment hobbled exactly as did the old horse, and as no one seemed to know what the trouble was, Quest dubbed it “Charley horse.”2
Whether this story is true or not is uncertain, but it does have a connection to Quest, like in the July 1886 citation, and it is recorded early enough that the details might not be too garbled in the telling. It’s interesting to note that many of the other tales that reference a horse named Charley give the detail that he was a white horse.
Other tales of the origin of charley horse can be discounted because the term was in use before the protagonist came to be. Perhaps the most famous of these states that the term is after Charlie “Duke” Esper, a southpaw pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, who is said to have “walked like a lame horse.” Unfortunately for this story, Esper didn’t start playing until 1894, well after the term was established.
Other stories have it that a group of baseball players (in one version from Baltimore, in another from Chicago) bet on a horse named Charley who came up lame in the home stretch. The next day, when a player suffered from a muscle pull in the leg, it was dubbed Charley horse. One version even credits preacher Billy Sunday, who presumably was consorting with the gambling players, with the coinage. There is no strong evidence for any of these.
1Fred Shapiro, “Antedating of “Charley Horse,” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 7 Mar 2005.
2Paul Dickson, The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999), 109.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton