Cornelius Van Cott

This article was written by Bill Lamb


Cornelius Van CottAlthough a member of a New York City family with deep roots in pioneer era baseball, Cornelius Van Cott had no great interest in the game. Neither a ballplayer during his youth nor much of a fan thereafter, Van Cott’s concerns were commerce, the city’s firefighting service, Republican Party politics, and the New York City Post Office. Yet when plans for the creation of a new major league baseball circuit surfaced in late 1889, Van Cott was identified as one of its backers. Shortly thereafter, he became a bona fide investor in and, subsequently, the president of the New York entry in the upstart Players League. Thereafter, Van Cott assumed the post of board member and club president of the National League New York Giants. Never more than a figurehead executive, Van Cott sold his interest in the Giants franchise in early 1895, and returned to his normal pursuits. Unhappily, his final years were plagued by financial reverses, and he was in the midst of post office and family scandals when felled by worry-induced heart failure in October 1904. The story of the eventful, often improbable, life of Cornelius Van Cott follows.1

By the time that our subject was born in Greenwich Village on February 12, 1838, the Van Cott family had been residents of New York City for more than two centuries, having been among the earliest Dutch settlers of what was then New Amsterdam. Neither gentry nor impoverished, the Van Cott family was solid Knickerbocker working class, spawning generations of shopkeepers, tradesmen, and skilled craftsmen, plus several Revolutionary War patriots. During his lifetime, Cornelius’s father, Richard Gabriel Van Cott (1805-1854), was listed in various governmental reports and city directories as a sashman, deliveryman, and policeman. He and Lyda Caroline Case (1809-1888) were married in Manhattan’s United Methodist Church in December 1825. Thereafter, the couple had at least six children, with Cornelius being the third-born.2

Young Cornelius attended Public School No. 16 in Lower Manhattan for a time, but was a member of the city labor force by his early teens. At age 15, he was working as a printer’s apprentice. Later, he became a carriage maker, employed by a man named Van Dusen, who was also the foreman of a local fire company. Intrigued, Van Cott soon joined his boss at Hose Company No. 7, beginning a rise in the profession that would culminate at the very top of New York City’s fire service. Meanwhile, other members of the extended Van Cott family were attaining prominence on the New York-area amateur baseball clubs of the 1850s.3 Although Cornelius looked like a ballplayer — tall, lean, and athletically built — there is no evidence that he ever engaged in the family pastime. When he had leisure hours, this Van Cott preferred hunting, fishing, and other outdoor field activities.4

His connection to a fire company smoothed Van Cott’s entry into politics. Affable and ambitious, he joined the Republican Party and quickly rose in local party ranks, eventually becoming a district leader. He also entered married life, taking 18-year-old Fanny Thompson as his bride in 1859. Sadly, only one of the couple’s three children survived infancy, son Richard (born 1862).5 Cornelius always doted on him, but Richard later proved the cause of much late-life heartache for his father. On the career front, Van Cott’s affiliation with the fire service also gave rise to business opportunities. In time, he was elected a director of the Aetna Fire Insurance Company, the first of various banking and insurance ventures in which Van Cott would be involved. The new insurance company director soon proved his worth, developing an industry-wide reputation as an honest and capable underwriter.

Cornelius received his first political appointment before he reached age 30, being named Deputy Collector of Customs, a post he held until being appointed Deputy Internal Revenue Collector by US President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. Thereafter, Van Cott took an active part in party efforts to oust the notorious Boss Tweed and his corrupt minions from positions of government influence. He was also a visible supporter of the successful 1873 New York mayoral campaign of Republican William F. Havemeyer. An appreciative Mayor Havemeyer then reciprocated, appointing Van Cott to the New York City Board of Fire Commissioners. He later ascended to the position of board president.6 Van Cott was reappointed as Fire Commissioners President by Havemeyer’s successor, Democrat William H. Wickman, and confirmed in that post by a Board of Aldermen dominated by Democrats. That was widely regarded as political affirmation of Van Cott’s competence and professional integrity.

In November 1887, Van Cott was elected to the New York State Senate, but resigned before the completion of his term to accept a presidential appointment to be Postmaster of New York City. In early October 1889, the New York Tribune, a staunchly Republican newspaper, voiced its approval. It noted “with special gratification the improvements in the city’s postal service which Postmaster Van Cott has brought about.”7 But almost simultaneously, Sporting Life was circulating Van Cott’s name in an unfamiliar context: as a prospective financial backer (with New York City Mayor Hugh Grant, a Democrat) of a New York club in a nascent major league baseball organization, the Players League.8

Sporting Life was on to something, but had linked Van Cott with the wrong Manhattan Democrat. The real architect of plans for placement of a new Players League club in Gotham was young Wall Street financier Edward B. Talcott, heir to a banking and commodities fortune and an influential Tammany Hall insider. The historical record yields no compelling explanation regarding why non-sportsman Van Cott joined Talcott. Yet Van Cott himself provided some insight in an interview given to an unnamed New York Herald reporter. The Postmaster maintained that “he had gone into the Brotherhood scheme more because he sympathized with them than through a desire to make money. [Van Cott] declared that the [National] League had made the players slaves and that he thought the system of selling men from club to club was the most pernicious practice he had ever heard of in this country.”9

Although he was not nearly as wealthy as the other three club angels (Talcott, tobacco company tycoon Edwin A. McAlpin, and stockbroker Frank B. Robinson), stints in the banking and insurance industries between government jobs had left Van Cott fairly well-to-do. Perhaps more important, the Postmaster was a high-profile New Yorker whose involvement brought public attention, as well as added political balance, to the venture.10 In mid-November, the newly formed New York Base Ball Club Limited filed incorporation papers in Albany. Listed as franchise principals were financial backers Talcott, McAlpin, and Van Cott, and star New York Giants players Tim Keefe and Buck Ewing.11 Thereafter, it was announced that Van Cott had been selected to fill the position of club president of the New York franchise. But baseball novice Van Cott was merely a Talcott factotum. Behind the scenes, PL Giants operations were directed entirely by Talcott, its game-savvy club vice-president. (Talcott’s friend McAlpin served as president of the Players League itself.)12

During the financially punishing 1890 baseball season, Van Cott’s duties as NYC postmaster regularly kept his name in newsprint. But press mention of his executive position with the PL New York Giants was limited to the odd occasion — like when the Giants were sued by a contractor over an unpaid bill for improvements made to Brotherhood Park.13 Otherwise, player-manager Ewing and/or VP Talcott did the talking for the ballclub.

The Players League New York Giants outperformed the National League New York Giants on the field and at the turnstiles.14 However, both clubs lost buckets of money during the 1890 season. In fact, only a clandestine infusion of cash from fellow NL club owners spared Giants founder/owner John B. Day from declaring bankruptcy in mid-July. In return for the $80,000 that kept his ballclub afloat, Day parceled out substantial blocks of Giants stock to fellow owners A.G. Spalding (Chicago), Arthur Soden (Boston), John T. Brush (Indianapolis), and other NL magnates. The backers of the PL Giants were also financially stricken, wallowing in club debt that had to be repaid out of their own pockets. To salvage their investments, the two sides began merger negotiations almost immediately after the season ended. Talcott handled talks with Day by himself, with club secretary/treasurer Robinson occasionally assisting on the public relations front. Club president Van Cott did no more than attend an occasional meeting and sign the NL/PL franchise consolidation pact when the time came.15

With the Players League now defunct, the consolidated New York Giants were a member of the National League. Franchise reorganization left John B. Day as club president, but real executive power rested with Edward B. Talcott and his allies. By the close of the 1891 season, it was estimated that the Talcott forces had accumulated over one-half of the stock of the National Exhibition Company, the Giants’ new corporate alter ego. The cumulative share of other NL club owners came to just over one-quarter, while Day and his junior partners retained no more than 15 percent ownership of the ball club that they had founded in 1883.16 In February 1893, Day resigned as club president and departed the franchise. Talcott thereupon restructured the club hierarchy to resemble that of his former PL operation. Van Cott was again installed as club president, a move that fooled no one. As pointedly observed by the New York Herald, it was “an open secret that [Van Cott] has little knowledge of the game and that Mr. Talcott will be the power behind the throne.”17 The useful Van Cott was also placed on the Giants board of directors.18

In March 1893, the inauguration of Democrat Grover Cleveland as US President ended Van Cott’s tenure as Postmaster of New York City. Unlike baseball, Van Cott fully understood post office operations. During his astute administration, mail service was significantly expanded while post office profits grew to $4 million annually. Returned to the business world by changing political winds, Van Cott became a director of the International Navigation Steamship Company, a principal of Hanover Insurance, and a trustee of the West Side Savings Bank. Back at the Polo Grounds, meanwhile, the tandem of executive boss Edward B. Talcott and field leader John Montgomery Ward had New York Giants fortunes on the rebound. In 1894, that progress was reflected in a new National League regular season home game attendance record (387,000) and victory in the inaugural postseason Temple Cup.

Notwithstanding club success, Talcott was unhappy. Although a genuine baseball enthusiast, the club boss always viewed investment in the Giants as a business proposition. Dissatisfied by the return on that investment, he resolved to sell out. To that end, Talcott entered into discreet negotiations regarding sale of the franchise with Andrew Freedman, a Manhattan real estate millionaire and Tammany Hall compatriot who had recently taken a fancy to baseball. Van Cott and McAlpin readily went along with the club sale plan, though Frank Robinson did so reluctantly. Thus, in early January 1895, Talcott was able to deliver a slim but working majority of National Exhibition Company stock to Freedman.19 And with that, the investment group that had been together since the founding of the Players League left baseball.

In 1897, the election of William McKinley placed another Republican in the White House. Soon thereafter, Cornelius Van Cott was back on the job as Postmaster of New York City. Four years later, he was reappointed by President Theodore Roosevelt.20 But during this final term in office, his ministration of the post office was besieged by embarrassments, the most serious of which was a corruption scandal that erupted in early 1904. Cornelius’s younger brother Winfield Van Cott was suspected of embezzlement and dismissed from post office employ. Also cashiered was son Richard Van Cott, Superintendent of Special Delivery. The Postmaster himself was not disciplined, but he remained under scrutiny as the investigation of his office continued.21

Meanwhile, financial ruin approached from another direction. A fledgling commercial venture backed by Van Cott failed, leaving him personally responsible for $23,000 in worthless checks that the business had issued. To top things off, son Richard, also a Republican Party district leader, was soon charged with colonization (voter fraud), and faced imminent trial and a possible prison sentence.

Beset with worry, particularly over the peril confronting his beloved only child,22 Postmaster Van Cott took ill inside his office on October 25, 1904. Taken home, he recovered briefly but then lapsed into unconsciousness. He died 15 minutes later. Cornelius Van Cott was 66. His physician attributed death to heart disease, but the next day’s news told another story. “Van Cott Dies; Worry Killed Him, Family Says,” declared the New York Times in a headline that would be reiterated or paraphrased in other news accounts of his death.

The Postmaster’s unexpected passing saddened many on both sides of the political aisle, for “both his friends and enemies were agreed as to [Van Cott’s] genial personality, his somewhat old-fashioned good manners, and his unfailing affability.”23 But recent events had taken their toll on the deceased. Once financially well-off, he left an estate of only $800.24 But in death, Cornelius bestowed one last parental blessing upon his son. In deference to his father’s passing, the criminal proceedings against Richard were briefly deferred. Days later, the charges were dismissed altogether when the prosecution’s star witness used the funeral hiatus to flee the jurisdiction.25 By then, services for Cornelius Van Cott had been conducted at Manhattan’s Methodist Episcopal Church. His remains were thereafter interred besides those of his late wife in Cypress Hill Cemetery, Brooklyn.

 

Acknowledgments

Excerpts of this bio were originally published in The Polo Grounds: Essays and Memories of New York City’s Historic Ballpark, 1880-1963, copyrighted 2019, edited by Stew Thornley, and republished by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina, 28640, www.mcfarlandbooks.com.

This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Joel Barnhart and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.

 

Sources

In large part, this bio is grounded in the writer’s previous work on the New York Giants franchise, including the organizational histories published in the Fall 2016 issue of Outside the Lines, the newsletter of SABR’s Business of Baseball Research Committee, and The Polo Grounds: Essays and Memories of New York’s Historic Ballpark, 1880-1963, Stew Thornley, ed. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019). Specific sources for the detail provided herein include the extensive newspaper coverage that Van Cott received as a prominent New York City politico; US Census data, and a brief sketch of him contained in Holice B. Young, The History of the New York City Fire Departments, transcribed in March 2001 and accessible on-line via http://www.usgen.net.org/usa/ny/state/fire/11/20/ ch50pt2.html. Particularly informative was background information published at the time of Van Cott’s sudden death amid scandal. See e.g., the New York Times and New York Tribune, October 26, 1904.

 

Notes

1 Modern reference works often list our subject as Cornelius C. Van Cott, but no trace of a middle name or initial was discovered by the writer in government records or newspaper reportage published during Van Cott’s lifetime.

2 His known siblings were Thomas (born 1834), Louisa (1836), Winfield (1841), Abram (1842), and Ellen (1849).

3 For more on the baseball-playing Van Cotts, see the biographical sketches of early New York-area players by eminent baseball historian John Thorn in Base Ball Founders: The Clubs, Players and Cities of the Northeast That Established the Game, Peter Morris, et al., eds. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013), 60. It is uncertain, however, whether the Gabriel Van Cott who umpired an 1854 game of the Gotham Base Ball Club was Cornelius’s father, there being any number of Gabriels in the extended Van Cott family.

4 According to Recreation, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 1900, 360.

5 The deceased Van Cott children were daughter Fanny (who died at six months in April 1861) and son Cornelius, Jr. (who died in July 1865 one month before his second birthday).

6 As recounted in various of Van Cott’s October 1904 obituaries.

7 New York Tribune, October 7, 1889: 6.

8 See “A Big Scare,” Sporting Life, October 2, 1889: 5.

9 Per “Players Ready to Fight,” New York Herald, November 4, 1889: 9. A year later, Van Cott revealed that he was a longtime acquaintance of visionary Players League mastermind John Montgomery Ward, and had promised his support “as a Republican who has always detested slavery” of any scheme that Ward proposed to free ball players from bondage. See “Picks Ups,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, September 3, 1890: 2.

10 Fellow club backer McAlpin was also a prominent Republican Party operative.

11 As reported in “The New York Limited, New York Herald, November 16, 1889: 6, and “Base Ball Gossip,” Worcester Daily Spy, November 16, 1889: 3. See also, “Clubs Organized,” Sporting Life, December 18, 1889: 5.

12 In addition to being possessed of considerable wealth and business acumen, Talcott and McAlpin were both avid baseball fans whose interest in the game long predated their involvement in the new league.

13 See “A Slight Omission,” Cleveland Leader, August 25, 1890: 2.

14 The PL Giants finished in third place with a 74-57 (.565) record, while the sixth-place NL Giants went 63-68 (.481). No reliable attendance figures exist for Players League clubs, but on Opening Day when the two New York nines played in adjoining ballparks, the PL Giants drew 12,013 spectators, the NL Giants only 4,644. Total 1890 attendance for NL Giants was 60,667, way down from the 305,455 fans who had come to the Polo Grounds only two seasons earlier.

15 More detail concerning the club merger negotiations is provided in the BioProject profiles of John B. Day and Edward B. Talcott.

16 As extrapolated from data published in Sporting Life, October 17, 1891: 3. The remaining odd lots of NEC stock were held by John Montgomery Ward, Tim Keefe, and a few other players.

17 “Postmaster Van Cott Will Lead Giants,” New York Herald, February 10, 1893: 9.

18 Also appointed to the board were Talcott allies Edward A. McAlpin and Frank B. Robinson, while Talcott himself retained the post of club vice-president.

19 For a thorough exposition of sale details, see James D. Hardy, Jr., The New York Giants Base Ball Club, 1870-1900 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996).

20 See “Van Cott Reappointed,” New York Times, December 10, 1901: 2.

21 As recounted in detail in various of the Van Cott obituaries published on October 26, 1904.

22 Following Van Cott’s death, a longtime post office employee commented upon the affection that the Postmaster openly displayed for his son Richard: “Whenever Dick came in, the old man would put his arms around his neck and talk to him like a mother would to a young child. Sometimes [Van Cott] would kiss him, not appearing to mind the presence of others.” New York Times, October 26, 1904: 1.

23 “Van Cott Dies,” New York Times, October 26, 1904: 1.

24 As reported in “Cornelius Van Cott Left $800,” New York Tribune; “Van Cott Left $800 Estate,” Woodbury (New Jersey) Times, and elsewhere, November 16, 1904.

25 See “Van Cott Case Knocked Out,” New York Evening World, November 17, 1904: 2; “Van Cott Discharged,” New York Daily People, November 18, 1904: 1; “Van Cott Case Collapses,” New York Sun, November 18, 1904: 5.

Full Name

Cornelius Van Cott

Born

February 12, 1838 at New York, NY (US)

Died

October 25, 1904 at New York, NY (US)

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