What he really wanted to be was a judge. Fehr's first job out of law school was as a clerk for U.S. district court judge Elmo Hunter in Kansas City, a position that Fehr looks back on with something close to reverence. He then joined Jolley, Moran, Walsh, Hager and Gordon, a Kansas City firm that specialized in labor law, and in 1976 the Andy Messersmith free-agency case landed on his desk. Messersmith, a pitcher at the time for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had played the '75 season without a contract to challenge the reserve clause in the standard baseball contract. An arbitrator had ruled in Messersmith's favor, rendering him a free agent and prompting an appeal by the owners. As local counsel, Fehr successfully represented the MLBPA in the appeal, and baseball hasn't been the same since.
Impressed with Fehr's handling of the case, Miller asked him to join the MLBPA in 1977 as general counsel. (At the time the average major league salary was $76,000—one fourteenth of what it is today. When Miller retired, in December 1982, Kenneth Moffett, a former federal mediator, took over as head of the union. Eleven months later Moffett was fired by the players, and soon after that Fehr became executive director.
Fehr wasn't comfortable in the job until late in 1986. "Marvin was the legend, and to be accepted by the players was Don's first hurdle," says Mark Belanger, the former Baltimore Oriole shortstop who has worked as Fehr's special assistant since '83. "He had trouble speaking the same language. Players are simple: out, safe, ball, strike. I remember telling him once, when he was in the middle of a 30-line sentence at spring training, 'Don, you lost them.' 'You think I lost them?' 'Yes.' That was something Marvin never had a problem with."
"Marvin will always be the George Washington of the union," says Gene Orza, associate general counsel for the MLBPA. "That's a hard act to follow, and one measure of Don's success is that he has followed that act. Not only has he not been criticized for the job he's done, but he's been roundly praised."
The Miller-Fehr relationship was viewed by some as guru-puppet early in Fehr's tenure, particularly during the players' strike in "85. Fehr did keep Miller informed of the ongoing negotiations and sought his counsel, but once seated at the bargaining table, Fehr answered only to the players he represented. "I never perceived it [Miller's shadow] as a burden," Fehr says. "I was not the slightest bit bashful in 1985 to ask him for help. I still talk to him several times a month."
Miller did mildly criticize Fehr for conceding a year of arbitration eligibility to the owners during his successor's first round of collective bargaining, in 1985. Players who had previously been able to go to arbitration after two years in the majors now had to play three. But it was not a huge concession, and since then the players have absorbed a greater share of baseball revenues, which have soared. In 1984 the players received 40% of baseball's $600 million in revenues; in '92 they got more than half of the estimated $1.6 billion in revenues.
Last December the owners exercised their option to reopen negotiations for the next basic labor agreement, which must get done before the 1994 season. It is too early to determine how those talks are proceeding, but as a general rule Fehr always expects the worst and hopes to be pleasantly surprised. "He likes crises," Stephanie says. "He always has."
"I like it a lot less now than when I was younger," Fehr says.
Indeed, there is a sense of weariness about Fehr as he approaches this set of negotiations, a sense that he's peering into the future and isn't thrilled with what he sees. "It does get tiring talking about the same issues with the same people month after month, year after year," he says. "You get the feeling you've done it all before, which you have, of course."
Although Fehr claims he has an affinity for baseball, he doesn't attend many games because going to them reminds him too much of work. Fehr says he will stay with the MLBPA at least until a new agreement is signed and the $300 million in collusion funds is distributed—the latter a process that could go on for another couple of years. "After that? Who knows?" he says. "I wouldn't want to predict. I wouldn't have predicted this long. Part of it's inertia. Part of it's wanting to see a job through. There's this perception that there's unfinished business."