There are jobs that demand of the person filling them that they be able to forgo popularity to do them well. No one likes public defenders. No one likes tax auditors. And no one likes the men who have chosen to represent baseball players as if they were a group of laborers in an industry long dominated by a paternalistic management and covered by an unquestioning press largely bought and paid for by the same.
Don Fehr took on this task and did it very well for a quarter-century. He did it as his peers in the NFL, NBA, and NHL all lost major labor battles and saw their unions weakened, or in the NFL’s case completely broken and turned into a house union. The relative popularity of Fehr and his NFL counterpart, the late Gene Upshaw, ran in inverse proportion to how good each man was at his job of representing the athletes in their charge. Since 1983, when Fehr took over following the brief, unlamented stint of Ken Moffatt, the MLBPA has established itself as the most powerful players’ association in sports, and one of the few successful unions in American labor. They won three grievances over collusion at a time when free agency was still in relative infancy. They beat management in the courts when necessary. Under Fehr’s watch, we’re into the longest stretch of labor peace since the players were serfs.
For this, Fehr became a reviled figure, first for not caving in to MLB’s demands in 1994 and leading the players into a strike that lasted through the World Series, then for defending the principle of privacy, the right to refuse unwarranted searches, and the sanctity of collective bargaining, all as the public, management, and a grandstanding Congressional committee looked to trample all three.
While Fehr may have made tactical mistakes in the latter case, his actions in the first were beyond reproach, and his position that MLB was not bargaining in good faith was eventually upheld by a federal judge. It was a Pyrrhic victory, perhaps—the damage done to the game by the strike was considerable—but the only alternative to striking was to turn over all leverage to the owners, and it was his job to avoid just that. In ’94, Fehr attempted to reach a no-strike/no-lockout agreement with the owners, and they refused to give him one, all but guaranteeing that they would lock the players out the following spring. He then set a strike date with an eye toward a resolution that would save the postseason. That he and his players, rather than acting commissioner Bud Selig or his cartel, is the public face of the lost season is unfortunate. The entire episode serves as an example of how little the public understands the issues involved, and how poorly the media educated them.
The second issue is more complex. At this point, sorting out the blame for steroid use in baseball over the last 15 years is impossible. Certainly, the players who used illegal substances with with the intent of gaining an advantage get the first level of blame. How far up from there you go, and how much is to be put on the MLBPA’s leadership, will require perspective and information, neither of which we have right now. A handful of players have spoken out, of course, taking the easy position that there should be testing and lots of it, and some have said they pushed that position years ago. There’s no reason to doubt this; what we can doubt is that these players were some majority shouted down by a minority. We can doubt this because players tolerated illegal drug use, both performance-enhancing and social, within the game for 40 years prior to the nominal steroid era. There was no internal outcry to ban amphetamines or cocaine, and there was no internal outcry to ban steroids.
This is the grand disconnect in the evaluation of Don Fehr. When Marvin Miller took over the MLBPA, there was a perception that the union would become one guy leading 500-700 others around by their noses, dictating positions straight from the labor playbook. In fact, Miller was “The Great Educator,” taking the time to ensure that every player understood and was invested in the union’s positions, knowing that the union was only as strong as its weakest link. He built the MLBPA by putting the players out front, by listening to them, and by showing everyone that he wasn’t some strong-arming labor boss, but rather a thoughtful, determined man who had the courage of his convictions and the patience to make them yours.
Fehr learned his role under Miller, learned that the MLBPA was about the players. Despite his title and his visibility, the truth is that he is simply the public face of the thousand-odd members of his union. They vote. They have meetings. They offer opinions. There would be no way for Fehr to impose his will on this group—would a bunch of professional athletes, competitive and ego-driven, allow for this? Despite this, the perception grew, and is largely still the case, that the “players” and the “MLBPA” are separate entities. Read the coverage of the 2002 negotiations, or the various steroid matters, and see how often there are references to the players and the MLBPA as if they were somehow independent entities. The notion of an out-of-control MLBPA leading the players—the initial image of Marvin Miller and the nascent union—returned with a vengeance.
The MLBPA’s positions were the players’ positions first, at which point they became Don Fehr’s positions. He was tasked with a set of duties we don’t like to defend in America these days, such as the right to privacy, such as the need to collectively bargain, such as the right to a presumption of innocence, such as the idea that the amount of money you make doesn’t justify your waiving of any of those rights or a dozen others. He represented wealthy young men very good at their profession to the best of his ability, and he did so knowing full well that he would become a public piñata by doing so. Whatever you think of the job he did, credit him for doing it in the first place.
Fehr certainly made mistakes. As the face of the MLBPA, he managed to make Bud Selig look smooth. He had neither the voice nor the presence to be effective in the public and media relations that would be so critical during his time in office. He did a terrible job of articulating the MLBPA’s positions, and too often turtled when he should have come out fighting. In 1994, in 2002, in 2005, those of us who saw through the innumeracy and untruths and grandstanding wanted to see the MLBPA take a more aggressive stance. All too often, they let management and the complicit media set the terms of the public discussion, lowering the level of discussion and making it difficult, even impossible, for the players to get a fair shake in the public square. Miller educated the players and the public, and was willing to have it out when necessary. Fehr didn’t sell the players’ position or defend it as well.
To some extent, Fehr had no chance to build a legacy. Marvin Miller took the players from servitude to freedom. There’s no follow-up act to that. Miller was up against Bowie Kuhn and a set of owners with a plantation mentality; Fehr faced off against Selig, who yanked all of the magnates in line and presented the first united front from management that the players had ever seen. Selig learned by facing off with Miller, and because of that he was a tougher adversary for Fehr.
Sure, you can point to the $3 billion the players will take home this season, but that’s a slightly smaller piece of the pie then they’ve gotten in the past, in part because Fehr and his players lost the 2002 negotiations, which set terms for restrictions on the labor market—givebacks—that are now the structural framework for all negotiations. The summer of 2002, when the media openly contrasted the negotiations with the events of September 11, 2001, and the amount of economic illiteracy in the coverage of the issues reached a peak, would likely have played out much differently a generation prior. The 2002 players were not prepared to strike, and Fehr recognized that and made a deal; that’s leadership, even if it’s not remembered as such.
As time passes, as people write their books, we’ll have more information about the last quarter-century, and we’ll gain perspective on the issues in play, and we’ll be able to better evaluate the work Don Fehr did. As he prepares to leave, though, what we can say is that Don Fehr did a thankless task to the best of his ability, sacrificing his personal popularity along the way. Much as agents take bullets for their clients, Fehr took bullets for his. We should all show such resolve.