When Donald Fehr first came into baseball more than a quarter of a century ago, he was the sort of labor attorney who could have gone through his entire professional life without creating so much as a ripple.
But as he prepares to walk away from his position as the leader of the most powerful players association in American professional sports, Fehr’s impact is both immense and unmistakable.
How is it possible that this bookish former law clerk could have emerged as one of the greatest protagonists and villains in sports over the past half-century without ever playing the game?
As the executive director of major league baseball’s players association, the 61-year-old Fehr was the fierce advocate who led baseball players into the prosperity they enjoy now, with average salaries rising from $289,000 in 1983 to $2.9 million last year. He fought through two walkouts and one lockout, engaging the owners in battles at the negotiating table and in the federal courts. He destroyed them at every turn and made his constituents rich men.
It was a war that needed to be won, and he fought that fight with a take-no-prisoners zeal that was the envy of every other pro sports union.
But that single-mindedness obscured his view of everything that wasn’t directly in front of him. His strafed-earth style of negotiation was great for the business of baseball, at least from the player’s perspective.
Yet with every war, there is collateral damage, and I’m not sure that Fehr ever recognized or cared about that.
Along with his cartoonish co-conspirator Bud Selig, Fehr must be remembered for his primary role as an enabler in the sad tale of baseball’s steroids era. They were lead characters in the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs that flourished in baseball over the past 20 years. When the final forensics are complete, they will be found guilty of the same crime. But Fehr hijacked baseball’s heart and soul in a way Selig never could.
For that, Fehr deserves to be remembered by so many in the baseball public as more of an obstructionist villain than as a labor hero. Here’s how it will go down in the history books when the Selig and Fehr chapters are written:
Selig was the absent-minded bank president who one day walked out of the building, left the vault door open and was shocked, shocked I tell you when he came back the next day and all the money was gone.
The commissioner will tell anyone who will listen that he never knew how the steroids era happened until it was too late. Fehr can’t play the stupid card. The difference between him and Selig is that in this bank heist, Fehr was the brilliant, calculating genius who didn’t necessarily devise the crime of the century. But once the drug cheats, liars and scoundrels walked into the unlocked vault, the executive director of the powerful player’s association helped design a cunning plan that consistently obstructed our view of how bad everything really was.
So we will have to consider Fehr a villain because he could have done so much more to prevent the drug scandal in baseball, yet he set up legal roadblocks and hurdles at every opportunity.