Fehr's legacy depends on vantage point
Departing union boss passionately stood up for players
"I've been doing this for 32 years and it's time to go."
With those words, Donald Fehr told Major League Baseball player reps on Monday that he is stepping down as the MLB Players Association chief.
Just think of the words "Donald Fehr."
Just think of the words "player reps."
What comes to mind?
Yes, it's OK to say it, because they are important words, words that have to be recorded for posterity, alongside words like "The Giants win the pennant!" and "I don't believe what I just saw!" and "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth" and "It ain't braggin' if ya done it."
They are words like "strike" and "angry" and "lockout" and "boycott" and "collective bargaining" and "rancor" and "impasse" and "serious" and "collusion."
They are words like "1994 World Series."
There was not a 1994 World Series.
They are also words like "golden era" and "record attendance" and "collective bargaining agreement" and "good faith" in more modern times, because baseball in this decade has been enjoying its longest stretch of labor peace. This era has been marked by remarkable records and storylines, yet it also has been marked infamously by the outbreak of performance-enhancing drug abuse. One word you never hear will be "indifferent."
The words "Donald Fehr" bring pretty strong reactions.
Here is what Commissioner Bud Selig had to say about the news:
"For more than 25 years, Don has represented his constituency with passion, loyalty and great diligence. Although we have had our differences, I have always respected his role. In recent years, we have worked together to find common ground for the betterment of the game, which will have resulted in 16 years of unprecedented labor peace by the end of our current collective bargaining agreement. We hope to continue to build upon the game's prosperity as we work with the new leadership of the Players Association. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I wish Don great health and success in the future."
Fehr's career at a glance
|A timeline of Donald Fehr's career with the Major League Baseball Players Association.|
|1977||- ||Moved to New York to take post of MLBPA General Counsel|
|1983||- ||Became acting Executive Director of the MLBPA|
|1985||- ||Led players through two-day strike that resulted in new Basic Agreement|
|1985||- ||Players filed and won three collusion cases resulting in the owners paying $280 million in damages|
|1986||- ||Became Executive Director and General Counsel of the MLBPA|
|1990||- ||Rebuffed owners' proposal for revune sharing and salary cap, resulting in 32-day work stoppage that delayed the start of the season by a week|
|1994||- ||Led players strike that lasted 232 days and resulted in the cancelation of the World Series|
|2002||- ||On the eve of a proposed players strike, reached a new Basic Agreement, avoiding a proposed "contraction" -- from 30 to 28 teams|
|2006||- ||The MLBPA and owners reached a new five-year Basic Agreement, marking the first time in over 35 years that a new agreement was reached before the previous one expired|
|2008||- ||Testified before congress about performance-enhancing drug use in baseball|
|2009||- ||The average salary for a Major League Baseball player is over $3.3 million, compared to the average of $289,000 when Fehr took over in 1983|
If you want to talk about Fehr's legacy, it really depends on how old you are, what seat you were sitting in, whether you were a common fan or a beneficiary player.
It's hard to imagine him not being baseball's labor leader.
It's hard to imagine anyone not having an opinion about him now.
"He's had a huge impact on the players," former Astros player rep Craig Biggio said Monday. "When you get into these negotiations between ownership and the players, you need someone to represent you. He's done a great job as far as when you're in tough times and a tough situation and you look at what the amount of revenue made in baseball up until the slide this year, he's done a tremendous job by the players. We've been lucky to have him."
"Not only myself, but every and I mean every ballplayer should drop down on our knees and thank the good Lord that he put Don Fehr as the head of the players' union," said Mark Grace, the longtime former Major League first baseman and broadcaster for the D-backs and FOX.
Fans don't use words like "lucky" to remember Fehr.
Fans don't plan to drop down on their knees over this news.
Unless you were a millionaire athlete who drew greater benefits through his negotiations, these were not the kinds of words you wanted to merrily ride along with from Opening Day through the final out of a World Series. But over the last quarter century, they were words that had to be uttered, because it is a free market and it is a national pastime that has management and a labor union and an antitrust exemption.
There had to be a Donald Fehr.
The man's legacy will be painted with words like those, or others that are yours alone -- just as there is a whole lexicon of adjectives for the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. That is an undeniable fact that Fehr or Bud Selig will readily confirm, one that comes with the territory.
This is the reality of fans as you read the news now that it is "time to go" for a mighty union boss. For many baseball fans -- indeed, most of today's baseball fans -- an entire lifetime has spanned the making of this legacy. Fehr is remembered now as "hard-nosed." He has to be remembered by many professional athletes and their families and agents as successful.
Marvin Miller was baseball's first union leader, arriving to represent the interests of players who sought to break free of an old system in which players for many decades were acquired and dealt like commodities. Fehr, a Baby Boomer (born July 18, 1948) who had graduated from Indiana University and then University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, was hired by Miller as an outside attorney during those 1970s legal battles that brought about free agency.
Fehr started with the MLBPA in 1975 and was hired as general counsel in 1977. Prior to assuming this position, Fehr was associated with the Kansas City law firm of Jolley, Moran, Walsh, Hager & Gordon, where, on behalf of the MLBPA, he worked on a landmark free agency case involving pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally.
Fehr became acting executive director in 1983, and officially took over as head of the organization in December 1985 -- right after the Royals had beaten the Cardinals and celebrated where he had earned his law degree and developed his jurisprudence skills. He had been in the thick of that 1981 lockout, which had the curious effect, in hindsight, of giving everyone a glimpse of what a "Division Series" concept might be like. There was a first half and a second half in each league that year, much like in the Minors, and the winners of each league's half met to decide who went to the League Championship Series.
The Dodgers beat the Yankees in that World Series. A lockout had been big news, but as long as there was a World Series, it was only a nettlesome point to fans.
Already Donald Fehr's influence was becoming obvious. The union was strengthening every year -- while MLB management was headed by three different Commissioners in an exceptionally short period of time. Bart Giamatti died of a heart attack on Sept. 1, 1989, and was succeeded by Fay Vincent from that Sept. 13 until Sept. 7, 1992. Vincent resigned following an 18-9 no-confidence vote by MLB owners, and the MLB Executive Counsel made Selig de facto acting Commissioner at that point. Selig took the official helm in 1992 and has served ever since.
Vincent contended that Fehr and the union held a massive distrust of management due to the legal findings of collusion among owners, and a generation grew up seeing Fehr as the stern-faced lawyer who would be relentless irrespective of baseball stats and standings. It was an adversarial era, and the words "collective bargaining" were a cold fact of life.
You wanted to read the box scores and the baseball magazines. You wound up reading The New York Times and Murray Chass and tried your best to understand the issues and the jargon. In 1994, you wanted to see Andre Dawson and the Montreal Expos -- the best team in baseball with a 74-40 record -- get a crack at what could have been their only World Series.
But Fehr was a hard-liner just like Miller had been. On Aug. 12, 1994, after his negotiations with team owners over a new collective bargaining agreement hit an impasse over owners' demand for a salary cap -- which other sports had -- Fehr led the players on a walkout that lasted to until the following April. Fehr, the man in suit and tie, is who you saw on the sports news. The rest of that season was canceled. Just like that. No World Series.
Attendance plummeted in the immediate years that followed. Only 50,245 fans showed up for the Yankees' 1995 home opener -- the smallest opening crowd there since 1990 -- and fans in attendance that day booed Fehr, who was in attendance. It took people like Cal Ripken Jr. -- who broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record in September 1995 -- to gradually help bring people back.
"It was one of those times the owners were hardliners on certain topics," Biggio recalls. "They dug their feet in, and the thing about us is we've always been able to stay unified. Our union is probably the strongest union in America because of that. We've always been unified, no matter what. Ownership lost a lot of money in the lockout, and the players lost a lot of money, too. It's part of the business and you take your lumps and move on. What younger players have today are things Donald Fehr and players of that generation set up for them. Same thing that Nolan [Ryan] and those guys did for us and did for me. That's the way the system works."
"If we try to figure out things together as opposed to taking sides, it's more efficient," now-retired Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina said in 2004, when he was a member of the union's executive board. "I think the experience of 10 years ago showed both sides that the game is too important to too many people, and we need to find better ways to accomplish things."
On Dec. 7, 2006 -- the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor -- any infamy seemed to be gone. That day, Fehr announced that the MLBPA had ratified a new Basic Agreement. That came a month after owners unanimously approved a five-year contract.
It was a far cry from the days of rancor. It ensured that the sport would have a minimum of 16 years uninterrupted by work stoppages. MLB and its players union were agreeing on drug-testing guidelines, a new World Baseball Classic, and other details that had eluded past talks.
This seemed like a new Donald Fehr to many, and indeed he often has been criticized in this decade by none other than Miller, who perceived him as softer in dealing with management.
Fans will not remember the outgoing union chief as soft.
You remember him as the guy who made players happy, who made fans so mad.
You remember him for going to Capitol Hill and testifying about performance-enhancing drugs. This is what he told the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Jan. 15, 2008, in the days of the Mitchell Report and constant buzz about alleged or documented use of PEDs in the game:
"Let me begin by re-stating the MLBPA's position. As I said when I appeared before this Committee nearly three years ago, the Major League Baseball Players Association does not condone or support the use by players -- or by anyone else -- of any unlawful substance, nor do we support or condone the unlawful use of any legal substance. I cannot put it more plainly. The unlawful use of any substance is wrong.
"Moreover, the players are committed to dispelling any suggestion that the route to becoming a Major League athlete somehow includes taking illegal performance enhancing substances, such as steroids. It does not take a physician to recognize that steroids are powerful drugs that no one should fool around with. This is particularly true for children and young adults, as the medical research makes clear that illegal steroid use can be especially harmful to them."
His is a legacy of standing up for and standing off against.
His is a legacy of headlines the common fan doesn't like to read.
His is a legacy of legal administration that had to happen.
Players loved him. Fans, not so much.
The impact he had on the game has been enormous. Words can describe it.
Donald Fehr was the man of those times, following in Miller's shoes.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Steve Gilbert and Brian McTaggart contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.