MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Is A Leg Cramp Called A “Charley Horse”?

Ever experienced a Charley Horse, the painful leg muscle spasm or cramp? If you have, then you know they can hurt like nobody’s business! And, once the pain subsided, you probably found yourself asking, “Who’s this Charley fella & why’s his horse hurting my leg? says that leg cramps are “generally treatable at home” through stretching, massaging, or icing the affected area, though the associated muscle pain can hang around for possibly another day or so. But, as far as the name “Charley Horse” goes, we have baseball to thank for that term. Its etymology isn’t 100% certain, but archived newspaper articles from the time suggest that it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. However, which player or why they said it, we’ll likely never really know.

“Charley Horse” was a phrase well-known to baseball players around 1887, but not the average Joe. Though it was mentioned in a bunch of newspapers across the US during that time, almost every one of the mentioning publications had a different account of the term’s origin.

The most likely version revolves around John Wesley “Jack” Glasscock, a shortstop for Indianapolis, who’d strained a thigh tendon during a game & went home to his family farm afterward. His father, who’d been looking after a lame old horse called “Charley”, saw his son limping along & reportedly said, “Why, John, my boy, what’s the matter…you go just like the old Charley horse?” John allegedly shared the funny phrase with teammates, and it spread from there.

Some said it had nothing to do with a live animal, but instead that, while running, an injured player resembles a rocking horse or a kid riding a wooden hobby horse.

Another theory had some players going to the races & betting on a horse named Charley who “pulled up lame in the final stretch”. The next day, when a player pulled a tendon, he was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

It could also relate to the old workhorses that pulled rollers across the infield. Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. So, the movements of injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the plodding old horses, with the injury itself becoming known as a “charley” or “charley horse”.

So there you have it. While we may never know the exact origin of the charley horse, at least the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg you’ll be able to thank an old-timey baseball player for making your affliction sound ridiculous.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].