Before Bill Bradley, there was Harry C. Harper.
Widely known as “Hackensack Harry,” Harper spent ten seasons as a major league baseball pitcher with the Washington Senators, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Brooklyn Dodgers, compiling a lifetime record of 59-77. The southpaw started the sixth game of the 1921 World Series for the Yankees against the New York Giants.
After his baseball career ended, the 32-year-old Harper entered politics, winning election as the Bergen County Sheriff in 1927.
Harper became a candidate for State Senator in 1931, seeking the seat vacated by Republican Ralph Chandless. Chandless had been expelled for his role in a Lodi sewer scandal. Harper, who ran with the support of Bergen GOP leder Daniel Thomson, a Chandless rival, won 61% of the vote against John Zabriskie, who had the support of Chandless’ political organization.
But in a general election that was viewed as a rebuke to President Herbert Hoover’s economic policies during the depression, Harper lost the general election to Democrat William Ely, a former Rutherford Councilman and Bergen County Court Judge.
Governor Harold Hoffman appointed him to serve as a state Civil Service Commissioner in 1934. He held that post until his appointment by Governor Walter Edge as the state Commissioner of Labor and Industry in 1944. He continued in that post following Alfred Driscoll’s election as Governor in 1946.
Against Driscoll’s wishes, Harper became a candidate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 1948, after incumbent Alfred Hawkes announced he would not seek re-election to a second term. Driscoll endorsed State Treasurer Robert Hendrickson, a former Senate President and GOP gubernatorial candidate, who easily won the Republican primary.
Harper resigned from the cabinet to run in a February 1950 special election for Congress. The GOP incumbent, J. Parnell Thomas, had resigned after pleading guilty to charges that he accepted kickbacks from his congressional employees. Harper, considered the favorite to win the January 24 Republican primary, lost by 402 votes, 50%-49%, to William Widnall, a 43-year-old Assemblyman from Ridgewood. Widnall held the seat for 25 years before losing in the 1974 Watergate landslide.
After his defeat, Harper spent the next thirteen years building his trucking, contracting, supermarket, fuel and beverage companies. He died in 1963, following a long illness. His son, George Harper, represented Sussex County in the New Jersey State Senate from 1954 to 1964. He was the New Jersey State Auditor from 1964 to 1974.
Ely lost his bid for re-election in 1935, and joined Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration as New Jersey’s WPA Administrator. Three years later, when A. Harry Moore resigned his U.S. Senate seat to become Governor, Ely became a candidate for the Senate. He won the Democratic nomination, but lost the special election for a two-year unexpired term to Repubican W. Warren Barbour by a 56%-43% margin. Contributing to his defeat were allegations that he accepted a $350 fee for representing the Bergenfield Board of Education in their application for WPA funds while serving as Administrator, and coverage of his address at a Hudson County Democratic rally a few days before the election where he hailed Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague as “my leader” and said of Hague: “He will not find me wanting when he wants me.”
Ely ran as a “100% pro-Roosevelt” candidate and became frustrated by the failures of Roosevelt, Moore and Hague to find him a ranking position after his statewide loss. He died four years later, at age 50, following a massive stroke.