Jockbeat: How Important Was Don Fehr to Baseball?


The late great Dodgers and Yankees announcer Red Barber once called Major League Baseball Players Association founder Marvin Miller “one of the three most important men in baseball history, right up there with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.” (Branch Rickey, who brought Robinson into baseball and created the minor league farm system was, thought Barber, “a close fourth.”)

No one will ever call Miller’s former legal counsel. Don Fehr one of the three most important men in baseball history. But Fehr, who announced yesterday that he will retire in March after 25 years as executive director of the MLBPA, was … well, if Miller was the Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle of labor leaders then Fehr was, at the least, Bobby Murcer.

No, we can do better than that. If Miller was as good as Yogi Berra, then Fehr has been Elston Howard. Or perhaps Carl Yastrzemski to Miller’s Ted Williams?

Miller, for one, thought Fehr had in some ways had a tougher time than he did:

“When I established the union in 1966,” Miller says, “it was relatively easy to rally the players. They were already worked up over a number of issues, the principal one being pension. It was easy to get them to listen to you and understand the importance of collective bargaining. It wasn’t that way for Don: sometimes the success of the union worked against him.

“There’s a natural tendency for people to believe that the conditions that exist when they come into a new situation are the way things have always been. Ballplayers are no different. When I started out, people were accusing me of being a ‘militant’ — they didn’t have any idea how militant some players like Bob Friend, Robin Roberts, and Ralph Kiner were. I didn’t have to make them more militant, I only had to organize them.”

Fehr didn’t have that advantage. A great many young players who entered the big leagues in the last several years — unless we forget, it’s been 16 years of labor peace, the longest stretch since the union was established — seemed to think that the huge salaries were the result of their own God-given ability rather than the union’s having overturned the reserve clause which bound a player to one team for life )in 1975). Jose Canseco, for instance, said in his book Juiced that, if asked by the owners, he would have lead a team of scabs on the field to help break the union. It apparently never entered Canseco’s mind or the minds of many other high-priced stars that if the union were broken there would be no more free agency and thus no bidding for their services and thus no multimillion dollar contracts.

Fehr had to do what Miller did not: constantly reeducate the ranks on the necessity of solidarity. “There was a lot of opposition among sportswriters to the union back when it was first established,” Fehr told me in 2002, “but in the late seventies and early eighties, a lot of that changed. Marvin Miller made them see the virtues of the union’s position and the fact that the players were being exploited. But as the years went by and we won all the major disputes, we also lost a lot of our support in the press. A lot of writers took the attitude that ‘Well, they’re not really a union, they’re just a bunch of privileged millionaires.’ They forgot that the players weren’t in fact privileged, that they earned everything they had because they were a union. If we hadn’t held together, we’d never have gotten anything more than what the owners were willing to give us.

“People ask me what I’m proudest of in all the years I’ve been with the player’s association. I tell them it’s this: we’ve never had a single member cross a picket line.”

In that interview, I asked Fehr what was the outstanding lesson he had learned since beginning with the union in 1977. “”What I’ve learned,” he said, “is that if you study baseball from its origins up till now, you’ll find two things: no manager ever thought he had enough pitching and no owner ever admitted that he made money.”