Tuesdays With Charley, Or Where Did That Cramp Come From?


If its Tuesday, it’s pinochle at my aunt’s.

We were sitting round her kitchen table, a few Tuesdays ago playing the venerable card game when Aunt Ger brought her muscle cramps up.  It’s a topic she brings up on occasion, that is to say, regularly.

Sharing a few nagging episodes of my own, I consoled her while  dutifully listening  to the plaintive descriptions of her woes.

“I get some bad Charley Horses during the night,” I interjected.

At which point, my aunt suggested some of her home remedies, such as rubbing the painful area with pickle juice.  I politely listen and the game continues.

But as the next hand was dealt, she suddenly wondered out loud, “Where did ‘Charley Horse’ come from?”  And looked at me, the former teacher.

Stumped, I said I’d look it up and get back to her.

I finally did.

Well, we can thank, it seems, an old baseball pitcher for the expression. Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn.   There are several other explanations for the origin of ‘Charley Horse’, to be honest about it.  But I like this one the best.

The  first time a leg cramp was called a ‘Charley Horse’ in print was in 1886, about the same time Radbourn—a butcher by trade—was hurling for various professional teams of that era, including the Boston Beaneaters.  He must have been a notorious sufferer of the condition, or perhaps, just complained the most.  Nevertheless, the worrisome ailment didn’t stop Radbourn from setting the record for most wins in a single season: an astounding 60!

In any event,  slang did its magic and ‘Old Hoss’ became the enduring eponym of a common medical condition.

But that’s not the end of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.  ‘Old Hoss’ is credited with yet  another first, although one his descendants may not be as proud of.

He was the first public figure to be photographed giving the finger.   If the gesture was directed at Fate for his muscle cramps, I totally understand.

Detail from 1886 Boston/New York team photo. The only pitcher in the history of major league baseball to win 60 games in a single season, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn extends his middle finger towards the camera. Photo Credit: 19th Century Baseball




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  • Putting Shari Lewis aside, I wonder if the Boston Beaneaters are responsible for some other medical condition.

  • Dehydration seems to be the most common culprit, also lack of stretching activity. The dreaded arch cramp is the worst, don't point the toe.

  • Thanks so much for a wonderful post. I took so long to comment because I just couldn't come up with a fresh way to say it -- but sometimes "I love this!" is enough. (I hope!)

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