Donald Fehr: Unconscionable Villain ... For Being Good At His Job

Donald Fehr ran baseball's players union in an ever more open-shop America and in a sports culture beset by drug panics of one kind or another. The former ensured that he'd be unappreciated; the latter that he'd be vilified.

This is important to remember now, as people react to Tuesday's announcement that Fehr will be stepping down next year. Already, a consensus seems to be taking shape that Fehr was, as one melodramatic headline put it, a "Guardian of Baseball Players, but Not of the Game's Soul." Well, of course not. For one thing, this presumes the game has a soul, and for another, in the event that it did have one, the head of its union would owe no more to that soul than John L. Lewis owed to the soul of coal extraction.

As usual, Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan gets it:

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.

That Fehr has become, as Sheehan writes, "the public face of the lost season" has a lot to do with what has happened outside of baseball: the rapid deindustrialization (and deunionization) of America, which allowed owners to depict the baseball union as a collection of lazy sybarites to a receptive audience that was at best indifferent to the notion of organized labor.

Nothing has changed since then. We're so far removed from the days of Big Labor that a union chief's fierce defense of his workers' privacy rights — as regards the drug issue — is now broadly seen as enabling obstructionism, rather than a union boss merely doing his job. Fehr, it should be remembered, took over in 1986, in the midst of a massive and self-destructive cocaine panic, and this very likely affected his handling of the steroid panic two decades later. Former commissioner Fay Vincent now has a lot of kind words for Fehr, but he tsk-tsked, according to The New York Times, that

Fehr never moved off what Vincent called "the privacy issue" from the recreational drug period that was largely about cocaine when Vincent was in the commissioner's chair.

"It was a lawyerlike position but a misguided position," Vincent said.

But it was Fehr's job, as head of a thousand-member union, to take the lawyerlike position. It was his job to treat this as a privacy issue. Here's Sheehan again:

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, like all union bosses in right-to-work America, makes for a convenient villain. His misfortune was doing his job well during an era in which people thought that meant he was doing something wrong.

Giving Don Fehr His Due [Baseball Prospectus]
A Baseball Atlas Who Shrugged [The New York Times]
Baseball union chief Fehr leaves a damaged game behind him [USA Today]