Donald Fehr and the Rise (and Fall) of the Players

Hero or Villain? Turn to page 68 if you say hero, page 195 if you say villain.

In honor of Donald Fehr resigning (or “re-signing” if you looked at ESPN.com earlier — it has since been changed to “stepping down”), I figured I would give you a quick biography of the controversial man.

Born on July 18, 1948, Fehr was never a professional ballplayer. He was destined to be a lawyer. For his undergraduate degree, he went to Indiana University, but he would receive his law degree from the University of Missouri.

At the age of 28, he earned himself a reputation in the baseball world by working as a lawyer in the Andy Messersmith case. The Major League Baseball Players’ Association had been working on getting rid of the reserve clause, which allowed the owners to unilaterally renew all contracts to keep players tied to a particular team, but they hadn’t succeeded, though they were getting closer. With Fehr working under then-executive director Marvin Miller, the MLBPA convinced arbitor Peter Seitz. Seitz declared that any player playing without a contract (players could refuse to sign the contract but still had to play for the team if they played) for a year would be a free-agent, ending the reserve clause. It’s important to note that this did not start free-agency as we know it. The 1976 Collective Bargaining Agreement did when the owners’ appeals failed.

A year after, Donald Fehr was hired as the general counsel (see a pattern?) for the MLBPA. Eight years later in 1985, Fehr became the union leader, taking over for his mentor Miller. No time to relax and enjoy himself, Fehr was instantly embroiled in another controversy. The reserve clause was gone and free-agency began, but that didn’t mean the owners were giving up. There were 35 free-agents, but only 4 switched teams. A gentleman’s agreement between the owners ensured that the players could not switch teams if the team wanted them back. Without any buyers, the players had to go back to their teams, for substantially less than what they could have received. Fehr went on the attack and filed a grievance.

But the court system can move slowly. During the next off-season, the owners used the same strategy, and for the first time, player salaries actually went down. Fehr filed another grievance, but before it got anywhere, the decision came back on the first grievance. The arbitor ruled that the owners acted illegally against the CBS, which stated that neither the players nor the owners could work together to boost or depress salaries. Fehr had won a major battle and $10.5 million for the players. Then, the decision came back on the second grievance. Chalk up another $38 million for the players.

But the owners weren’t exactly going to give up this time, either. Instead, they created an information bank to share what each team was offering the free-agents. Obviously, this depresses salaries. If the teams know what the other is offering, the agents and players have no chance to get a proper salary. Fehr filed another grievance and won another $64.5 million for the players. All told in the 3 collusion cases, he brought in $113 million in damages. But those were just fines. Later, the players received another $280 million in settlement money.

A few other grievances have been filed, but none have been quite as successful. As part of the 2006 CBA, the owners gave the players $12 million, but they did not admit that they colluded. Also of note is that the minimum salary rose from around $60,000 ($68,000 in 1989) to $400,000 (in 2009).

In addition to just the money, the players’ union has gained quite a bit of power under Fehr’s leadership. They’ve rebuffed salary caps and testing while gaining licensing agreements and pensions. One of the most notable events was the 1994 strike. Baseball’s economic situation was going into the toilet, and the owners were looking for a way to regroup. Their idea was to use a salary cap, but Fehr said that this was of no benefit to the players and refused the CBA. The 1994 season was cancelled in September, and the two sides began a bitter dispute that even involved the President. The owners eventually tried to use replacement players, but Fehr and the MLBPA filed an injunction that succeeded in stopping the owners.

Of course, the problem with that power is the Steroid Era. Fehr’s strength prevented testing until popular sentiment finally went against him. Now, Fehr has become the enemy after so many years of being a hero. Was it a mistake? Well, he fought and kept players’ rights. Players do have a right to privacy. However, did he ultimately do a disservice to the players? Yes. Sentiment and frustration have turned against the players (flawed as that sentiment and frustration may be), and now, their sterling performances are questioned instead of revered.

Love him or hate him, he did his job and did it well. In a way, he has Scott Boras Syndrome. He does his job well (admirable), but it doesn’t necessarily jive with what we want (unfortunate). The question for a man like Fehr, and maybe Boras, is — do I continue doing my job and following through on my mission or do I make a decision in the best interest of the entire sport? This isn’t as easy of a decision as it sounds. Yes, we all, theoretically, want the best for the sport, but in many ways, we are a bit too utopian in this view. We forget that the owners aren’t exactly benevolent, either. If Fehr doesn’t fight for the players, the players may lose too much power. Each side needs its smart, determined people fighting for its interests. Fehr was one of those men.

Fehr, current sentiment and over emphasis on the now be damned, did enough for the players to cancel out the mistake of the Steroid Era.

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