When he died at the age of 67, the New York Times proclaimed William R. Travers “may have been the most popular man in New York.”
He was, in a word, adored.
We know Travers as a founder and the first President of the Saratoga Racing Association, and the namesake for the single longest actively running sporting event in America – The Travers Stakes.
We know him as the owner of Hall of Famer Kentucky, that race’s first winner.
We know him as a brilliant financier on Wall Street.
But what you may not know, in spite of his wealth and success, Travers was arguably better known for his wit, charm and self-deprecating way.
A New York Times article published two years before his death noted his “wit never screens malice but it frequently stings, being at times near the truth.” In his obituary, it added “his defect of speech, which is well known, added to the effectiveness of his utterances.”
The former piece, published March 15, 1885, applauded Travers apologetic humor. One could easily get the impression it made him more approachable and more endearing.
In short, Travers wasn’t just another stuffed shirt with money. Travers was a funny guy … and he could take a hit too.
Take, for example, the story of him running into an old Baltimore acquaintance while walking on a street in New York City.
“Why, Bill, you stutter worse now than when you were in Baltimore,” his friend said.
“H-h-have to,” answered Mr. Travers. “B-b-bigger city.”
One day Travers saw John Morrissey, the man who built Saratoga Race Course, standing by a horse. Morrissey fancied himself the type who could spot equine talent however his results on the track begged a different argument.
“W-w-what have you g-got there, John” he asked.
“A race horse” he replied with an air of satisfaction.
“A race horse!” Travers exclaimed.
“Yes, Sir, a race horse. Are you going to bet on him?”
“Yes, I’ll b-bet on him,” Travers replied decidedly.
“How?” Morrissey asked, somewhat in doubt.
“I’ll c-c-copper him.
One can only imagine the look on Morrissey’s face, mouth gaping and stunned at Travers shot across the bow.
Then there was the time he traveled to Brooklyn for the wedding of a friend’s daughter who lived on Montague Street. Travers apparently took a wrong turn somewhere in his travels and got lost. He stopped a gentleman and asked for directions.
“I desire to reach M-m-montague Street,” he said to a passerby. “W-will you be k-kind enough to p-point the w-way?”
“You are g-going the wr-wrong w-way,” he stuttered in his reply. “That is M-montague Street.”
“Are you m-making fun of m-me, m-mimicking me?” Travers asked sternly.
“N-no, I assure you” the man replied, with all due haste to repair an apparent lack of good manners. “I-I am b-badly af-flicted with an ob-stru-struction of speech.”
“Why d-don’t you g-get c-cured?” Travers asked with mischief in his eyes. “G-go to Dr. — and g-get c-cured. D-don’t you see how w-well I talk? He c-cured m-me.”
Poor fella. Probably had no idea what to make of him.
Enter Henry Clews, a banker who often boasted he is a self-made man. Travers overheard him speak of this and fixed his eyes on Clews bald crown in a sort of daydream like state.
“Well, what’s the matter, Travers?” he asked somewhat impatiently.
“H-henry,” Travers inquired “d-didn’t you say you we-were a self m-made m-an?”
“Certainly, I made myself” Clews replied warmly.
“Then, w-when you were ab-b-about it, w-why didn’t you p-put m-more h-h-hair on the t-top of your h-head?”
Insert a well time DOH here.
Travers had been approached by Clews as he sought advice for the famous Vanderbilt ball; an affair of full costume dress. Travers suggested:
“Clews, w-why d-don’t you s-s-sugar coat your h-head and go as a p-pill?”
Travers, clearly, was not your run of the mill, well bred snooty sort. Remember, he was quite capable of being on the other end of the jibe.
He was walking along the street with a bunch of brokers in tow. He spots a man in front of St. Paul’s church selling parrots.
“H-hold on b-boys,” Travers said mysteriously. “W-we’ll have some f-fun.”
Hailing the parrot seller and indicating one of the birds Travers asked “Can that p-parrot t-talk?”
“Talk?” the man replied with a contemptuous sneer. “If he can’t talk better than you I’ll wring his blasted neck!”
“C-come on, b-boys,” Travers called out; “th-this f-fun is p-post-p-poned until another day.”
Naturally it is only fitting that the last of Travers’ anecdotes shared here deal with a gambler in the Spa City.
A plunger named Walton was introduced to Travers at The Spa in the midst of his best two years playing the horses. He suggested that he and the financier do business together. Walton told him of how he has earned over $350,000 these past two years, and with Travers being a whiz in the stock market he thought they could share a couple of points to help each other out, and add to their fortunes.
“You m-made three hu-hundred and fifty th-thousand on h-horse racing?” Travers repeated.
“Yes, sir. $350,000 in two years,” Walton said again.
“And you want m-me to g-give you a p-point on st-stocks?” Travers continued.
“Yes, if you please. In return for my points on horses,” Walton said.
“Well, I’ll g-give you a first r-rate p-point,” Travers said. “You m-made three hu-hundred and fifty th-thousand d-dollars in t-two years. Then st-stick to your b-business. Th-that’s a f-first r-rate p-point.”
Travers made a fortune on Wall Street. He was one of the founders of Saratoga Race Course and it’s first President. He was a long-time President of the New York Athletic Club, a member of 27 private clubs, a backer of Sheepshead Bay Racetrack on Coney Island and he made up one-third of Annieswood Stable, racing champions such as Kentucky and Alarm.
All this barely scraped the surface of what he accomplished.
But above it all, above his fortunes, keen financial acumen, racing accomplishments, all those club memberships and elite status, William R. Travers was best known for his good nature and wit.
Ain’t a bad way to go out, is it?
New York Times, March 15, 1885 Stories of Wm. R. Travers
New York Times, March 28, 1887 William Travers
Picture of Travers located at Barker Family Tree website