"Don's sense of humor is more a sense of irony at the ways of the world," says his brother Steve, an attorney and player agent. "He has no public sense of humor. I've tried to work with him on that. I've given him some jokes to put into his speeches. He'll just look at me quizzically. He has one of the great quizzical expressions of all time. He just doesn't put up with the social b.s. He never did suffer fools gladly. That trait, if anything, is stronger in him today than ever."
If that doesn't sound like a guy you'd invite for cocktails, Fehr not. He doesn't drink, and he wouldn't come if you asked him. "We spend a lot of time with our children," says Fehr's wife, Stephanie. The Fehrs live in the Manhattan suburb of Ryebrook, N.Y., and have four children, aged 17 to five—and Don does his best to shield them from publicity. "We don't go out much," says Stephanie. "Don's not what you'd call a social animal."
Fehr refuses to have a phone in his car even though he conducts a large part of his business on the phone—keeping the players informed, talking to agents, being interviewed. He answers reporters' questions with a single purpose: to inform, even persuade, the interviewer of the union's way of thinking. It is a trait he learned from Marvin Miller, who organized the MLBPA in 1966 and ran it until he stepped clown in '82.
"It was one of his rules," Fehr says of Miller. "Always tell the truth—always. You don't make up things. You don't chisel with the press. If you can't tell the press something, you say that. As regards the press, sometimes you have to tell it what it should be asking if it doesn't understand the issues."
But when Fehr is in his car, he is safe, unreachable, free to unleash his mind to soar in whatever direction it pleases. "It was always clear that this was a person with a fiery intellect," says Steve, whom Don uses as his sounding board in matters legal and personal. "There's a lot of energy in his intelligence."
Somewhere between the time he was nine (his mother's version) and 12 (Don's version), Fehr read The World Book Encyclopedia—out of nothing more than intellectual curiosity. His interest in athletics was minimal. Growing up in Prairie Village, Kans., a suburb of Kansas City, Don played a little backyard catch with Steve. He participated in Little League. But he was never a sports enthusiast, as a player or as a fan. "I'm not competitive over unimportant things," he says.
He wanted to go to college at Berkeley, the center of the counterculture movement of the '60s, but Fehr was anything but a rebellious youth, so when his parents voiced opposition to Cal, he chose to accept a scholarship at Indiana. On medication to relieve his allergies, Fehr didn't drink, smoke or experiment with drugs, which, in the late '60s, put him in a distinct minority. Inevitably, though, Fehr's opinions were influenced by the cathartic events of that period.
"Three events in college still evoke an emotional response out of me," Fehr says. "The King assassination. The Bobby Kennedy assassination. Then Kent State, the ultimate idiocy. You had a country polarized, with no compromise at all between the so-called establishment and antiestablishment. You couldn't not be affected in that sort of atmosphere if you were thinking."
In 1972, while at Missouri-Kansas City law school, he worked for the George McGovern campaign. Idealistic, opinionated and imbued with a deep sense of moral indignation, Fehr was a prototypical liberal student-activist. "One thing I learned then," he says, "was a healthy degree of respect for the individual, and skepticism over the nature of big business and monopolies."
He has applied that skepticism to fine effect in his dealings with baseball's owners. "It's relatively easy to define who the good guys and the bad guys are," Fehr says. "They collude; we don't. They lie; we don't. The lines are very bright." Still, the fact that Fehr ever found himself in the position to draw those moralistic lines is due more to kismet than to anything intentional.