Charlie Horse: A Quest for the Origin

Next year will be the 25th running of the Charlie Horse Race.  In anticipation of that milestone we are going to publish a two part series on the origin story of this race.  Part I will be a short history of the origin of the term “Charlie Horse”.  Part II will be the true story of how that term was applied to this race from the original race director, Charlie Crowell.

Now someone somewhere reading this may say “hey, weren’t there a couple of years in the early 2000’s where there was no race?” Or “hey what about the Covid year?”  Rest assured that even when there was no formal race, at least one person ran the course on Memorial Day weekend and at least one person paid an entry fee and a donation was made to the Special Olympics.

Part I — “A Quest for the Origin”

According to baseball historian Andy Strasberg, the origin of the term “Charlie horse” can be traced back to a 19th-century baseball player by the name of Joseph Quest.

Strasberg cites a couple different version of the story. Let’s start with the one that’s less likely to be accurate.

From an 1898 article in the New Castle (PA) Daily News:

Joe was employed in the establishment of Quest & Shaw, this city, learning the machinist’s trade, the senior member of the firm being his father. An old white horse named Charley was used by the firm in a wagon utilized for hauling machinery around the works. Charley had drawn so many heavy loads and was so advanced in years that he had a peculiarly wobbly gait, occasioned by his strained tendons. When Joe noticed the ball players limping around Charley’s walk was recalled in his mind and he named the condition of the players after the old horse at his father’s works.

The more probable version of the story, also from 1898, comes from Quest’s former teammate, Hugh Nichol:

Joe Quest coined the phrase a way back in 1882, in Chicago…It’s a racehorse story and it happened this way. Chicago was having an off day. Our schedule called for some eighty odd games in those seasons and we had more spare time than the big leaguers have now. There was racing down on the south side and some of the boys took great interest in it…The tip had gone out the night before that a horse named “Charley” was a sure winner that afternoon…we were all in with the exception of Joe Quest. No amount of argument could induce him to bet a copper on that horse…In the last turn Charley stumbled, went lame in his right hind leg, and the field closed up. Quest threw a fit: “Look, look!” he shouted as the first horse passed Charley. “Look at your Charley horse now.” And he kept it up. Charley finished outside the money and we didn’t hear the last of “our old Charley horse” the rest of the day.

It was during a game Chicago played the next day with Chicago’s George Gore on base and attempting a steal and about half way down Gore stepped into a pocket and sprung a strain, just the way the pony had done the day before and Quest sang out: “There’s your old Charley horse— he’d made it all right if it hadn’t been for that old Charley horse.”

Decades later, after settling in San Diego, Quest died in 1924 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Just recently, however, the Society for American Baseball Research found the money to commission a gravestone for him, thus immortalizing his idiomatic contribution.

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