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Former New York Yankees pitcher Harry Harper served as Bergen sheriff, held cabinet posts under three New Jersey governors, and ran for U.S. Senate and Congress.

The story of Hackensack Harry

Former Yankees pitcher was Bergen sheriff, cabinet member, Senate and House candidate

By David Wildstein, March 03 2019 11:54 pm

Before Bill Bradley, there was Harry C. Harper.

Known as “Hackensack Harry,” Harper spent ten seasons as a major league baseball pitcher.  The big left-hander was the starting pitcher for the New York Yankees game six of the 1921 World Series against the New York Giants.

His baseball career came to an end in 1923 when the Brooklyn Dodgers released him.

Four years later, at age 32, he launched a political career as the Republican candidate for Bergen County Sheriff.

Sheriff George Nimmo died that spring.  Gov. A. Harry Moore appointed Bergen County Democratic Chairman Mort O’Connell to replace him.

Harper defeated the Democratic incumbent, Mort O’Connell, by a little under 10,000 votes (56%-44%).

There was no transition period in those days, with constitutional officers sworn in the week after the general election.  The Bergen County sheriff had an official residence at the jail, so within a week O’Connell and his family moved out and the Harper family moved in.

When State Sen. Ralph Chandless (R-Hasbrouck Heights) was expelled from the New Jersey State Senator for his role in the Lodi sewer scandal – that’s a story for another day – Harper became a Senate candidate.

Harper had the support of Bergen County Republican chairman Daniel Thomson, a bitter Chandless rival.  The Chandless faction backed Bergen County Court Judge John Zabriskie. Harper won the primary with 61% of the vote.

The general election was a tough year for Republicans, who were fighting a sort of Blue Wave caused by the unpopular economic policies of President Herbert Hoover.

Harper lost the general election to Democrat William Ely, a former Bergen County Court Judge and Rutherford councilman by less than 4,000 votes (52%-48%).  The Democratic candidate for governor carried Bergen by more than 17,000 votes (56%-44%).

With Harper gone, O’Donnell again became the sheriff.

Gov. Harold Hoffman appointed Harper to serve as a state Civil Service Commissioner in 1934. He held that post until his appointment by Gov 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.

After U.S. Senator Alfred Hawkes announced he would not seek re-election to a second term. In 1948, Harper – against the wishes of Driscoll, his boss – became a candidate for U.S. Senate.

Driscoll endorsed State Treasurer Robert Hendrickson, a former Senate President and GOP gubernatorial candidate.

Hendrickson won the Republican primary by more than 60,000 votes, but Bergen gave Harper a massive 78% of the vote – a plurality of more than 29,000.

After seven-term Rep. J. Parnell Thomas (R-Allendale) resigned following a guilty plea to charges that he took kickbacks from his congressional staffers, Harper resigned from the cabinet to run in a February 1950 special election for Congress.

In an upset, Harper lost the primary by 402 votes (50%-49%), to Assemblyman William Widnall (R-Ridgewood).  Widnall held the seat until he lost in the 1974 Watergate landslide.

EPILOGUE

Harper left politics after losing his congressional race and built a series of highly successful companies.  He died in 1963.  His son, George Harper (R-Sandyston), represented Sussex County in the State Senate from 1954 to 1964 and was the New Jersey State Auditor from 1964 to 1974.

Hackensack Harry’s grandson, George B. Harper, Jr., is currently the mayor of Sandyston.

Ely ran for re-election to the Senate in 1934 and lost by less than 100 votes countywide to Republican Winant Van Winkle, the president of the Rutherford Taxpayers Association.

After the election, Winant joined the Roosevelt administration as head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) office in New Jersey.

In 1938, when Moore resigned his U.S Senate seat to become governor, Ely won the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination for a two-year unexpired term.

Ely was criticized for taking a $350 fee from the Bergenfield Board of Education to help obtain a WPA grant, and for his ties to Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague.

At a campaign rally, Ely called Hague “my leader” and said that Hague “will not find me wanting when he wants me.”

He lost the general election by a 56%-43% margin.

David Wildstein Collection
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