Donald Fehr

The man behind baseball’s unbreakable union.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

If Marvin Miller is the baseball union’s Julius Caesar, the man who won the battles that established the union’s dominion over the sport, then Donald Fehr is its Augustus, the man who has skillfully maintained the empire. Miller’s accomplishments as union head were more dramatic—most notably, free agency, which has made some players astonishingly wealthy by allowing them to negotiate with any team willing to sign them. But Fehr’s feats shouldn’t be dismissed. He has fended off persistent efforts by the owners to topple a system that has shifted tremendous revenues to players. While other sports leagues have introduced anti-labor devices such as salary caps, Fehr has preserved and protected the baseball players’ realm. Like a good relief pitcher, he hasn’t blown the lead that he was given.

Fehr has now served nearly two full decades as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and he has continued the union’s unbeaten streak in negotiations. He led the union through a two-day strike in 1985, a lockout in 1990, and baseball’s devastating 1994 strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series and the shortening of the 1995 season. Each time, Fehr and the union emerged with their golden goose—the status quo—for the most part intact. Through it all, Fehr’s strong leadership—and his cranky, scowling demeanor—have led him to be widely reviled by the press and the public. But from a PR standpoint, Fehr is about to face his toughest challenge yet. The players are almost certain to go on strike before the season is over. Already the press is starting to gripe—unions generally aren’t popular and a union of rich athletes even less so. Fehr, however, doesn’t care about PR, only about improving the lot of the players who employ him.

Following Miller’s practice, Fehr makes sure that the players are seated at the bargaining table, unlike his management counterparts, who often don’t have an actual owner engaged in the process. Fehr is also, quite simply, smarter than the owners and their lawyers. Possibly “brilliant,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College and an expert in sports economics. Profiles of Fehr always mention his voracious reading of an eclectic array of books, but there’s better evidence of his brains: He never loses.

What Fehr does isn’t scintillating, Johnnie Cochran-style courtroom theatrics. He dutifully files unfair labor practice complaints or takes the owners to arbitration, as mandated in major-league baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. But time and time again, he wins. Which is what good lawyers do.

In the late 1980s, the owners colluded in an attempt to prohibit free agency; Fehr took them through three years of arbitration hearings and won a $280 million settlement. When the owners tried to break the union in 1994 and 1995 by unilaterally imposing a new economic system and proposing the use of replacement players, Fehr—as he always has—outwitted and outlawyered them, with the help of the players’ resolve. During his tenure, the average player’s salary has rocketed from $330,000 to more than $2 million, and the minimum salary has quintupled, going from $40,000 to $200,000. Fehr leads more than the strongest union in sports. It’s the strongest union in America.

Fehr’s leadership contributes to the remarkable solidarity of the players’ union, but he also has a number of institutional advantages on his side. For one thing, it’s easier for baseball players on strike to maintain solidarity than it is for, say, steelworkers, because the players know that they’re virtually impossible to replace. Of course, football players are difficult to replace, too, and that didn’t help them in 1987 when the NFL replaced them with scabs. Players broke ranks with the union and crossed the picket line to play ball.

But baseball players never break ranks. The union’s 8-0 record in negotiations—due principally to the leadership of Miller and Fehr—gives the players confidence that the union will succeed if they only give it time. Plus, unlike their NFL and NBA counterparts, baseball players have a shared experience in the minor leagues. As college players—even as high-school players—football and basketball players are lionized and become national celebrities. Young baseball players toil in relative anonymity, traveling by bus and working for paltry wages. By the time they reach The Show, baseball players understand the need to protect what their predecessors earned for them, and they stick together to do it.

Fehr also has a rhetorical advantage: In traditional management-labor negotiations, the union believes it has virtue on its side for defending workers against the capitalist pig-dogs. The pig-dogs, by contrast, defend the justice of the market. But Fehr has the good fortune to get to defend both. All the players want is to be paid their market value. If the owners aren’t competent enough to work within their own budgets, why is that the players’ fault?

And incompetent ownership has always been Fehr’s trump card. In recent decades, baseball hasn’t been led by a powerful pro-owner commissioner (except Peter Ueberroth, whose claim to fame is teaching the owners to collude and costing them $280 million in the process), and the owners have never been able to get their act together on their own. But under Bud Selig, the owners have been more unified than ever before. Perhaps more worrisome, the current president is not only a conservative Republican, he’s also a former baseball owner who has used his office to unabashedly promote his old industry. That doesn’t bode well for the union if this administration gets involved in negotiations as President Clinton did last time around.

Nor does it provide much hope for fans who don’t want to see a work stoppage. If the owners won’t promise not to unilaterally impose a new economic system at the end of the season, the players have no choice but to strike before the season ends, hitting the owners in their wallets. It’s the only weapon the union has.

According to Roger I. Abrams’ Legal Bases: Baseball and the Law, it’s taken more than 25 years of free agency for the players’ percentage of baseball revenues to return to the amount they kept in the 1870s, before the National League adopted the reserve system that prohibited free agency. Over the past couple of decades, the owners have been unrelenting in their goal: to take free agency away—through negotiations, through lockouts, through collusion, through salary caps. Largely because of the efforts of Donald Fehr, they haven’t succeeded. But there’s no reason to believe they’re going to stop trying. And unlike this week’s All-Star Game, it’s hard to believe that Selig will let this competition end in a tie. Still, no matter which side wins, the outcome will be the same: The fans leave booing.