Throughout the ballroom at Miami's Doral Resort and Country Club, foreheads begin to wrinkle. Appetites fade. Not a single face is creased with the hint of a smile. It can mean only one thing: Donald Fehr, against both his wishes and his better judgment, is giving a welcoming address to a room full of people he has no desire to meet.
The occasion is the first Major League Baseball Players Association-Comic Relief fund-raising dinner, the proceeds from which benefit pediatric health care for low-income and homeless children around the country. Charity, like politics, makes strange bedfellows, and none could be stranger than Fehr and Comic Relief. His words to this Feb. 5 assemblage are brief and serious, his delivery unsmiling. We've seen this look before—on ESPN, in the newspapers. We've seen it when Fehr's announcing a players' strike. When he's discussing a lockout. When he's filing a lawsuit on behalf of his millionaire constituency. Was Tom Landry ever this unrelentingly serious? Was Cyrus Vance? Was Moses?
Duty done, Fehr exits the stage without an attempt at a quip.
Actor-comedian Robert Wuhl (Bull Durham, Batman) is the next speaker. The room is dead. There is nowhere to go but up. "I don't know how you can follow Donald Fehr as far as comedy goes," says Wuhl as Fehr makes his way back to his seat, "but you folks better laugh or, I swear, I'll bring him back."
The 44-year-old Fehr, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), never asked for any of this. For Fehr—a private man, reclusive when possible, even antisocial—the ultimate fantasy is to sit on a beach by himself and read without interruption. "The more you're around me, the more you'll find that 99 percent of the time I talk about things other than sports," he says.
The simple act of pouring cream into coffee elicits a brief lecture from Fehr on the physics of deterministic chaos. And should you be wondering, the book on his bedside table is a philosophical investigation of mathematics entitled Pi in the Sky. Because of his 55- to 70-hour workweeks, Fehr figures he has time for only 150 books a year, not half the number he would like to bury his face in annually. Books about physics. Books about history. Biographies (not of athletes, of course).
Speeches? Jokes? What Fehr disdainfully calls "meet-and-greet" social functions? He would sooner be stretched on a rack. "What's critical is to know your constituency," Fehr says. "Not whether you get along well in a party socially, which I can't. Yesterday I called to get an airplane ticket, and the reservationist asked me if I was that Don Fehr. Next thing I know, he's asking where to stay during spring training. All I wanted was a ticket. I hate being recognized."
Yet recognized he is, as the head of the most visible and, arguably, most accomplished labor union in the country. Fehr was drafted to the role of executive director of the MLBPA in 1983 when he was 35. He has served his constituency with distinction. At the expense of baseball's ownership, Fehr has garnered favorable judgments from arbitrators on such issues as mandatory drug testing and the owners' collusion against free agents. (He is in the process of distributing some $300 million in collusion awards from three separate cases, involving the 1985, '86 and '87 seasons.) Since 1981, when the Topps trading-card monopoly was overturned in court, Fehr has negotiated agreements with baseball-card companies that have resulted in a licensing bonanza for the MLBPA, with revenues soaring from $2 million a year in '81 to $70 million in '92. Under Fehr's leadership baseball players continue to enjoy a liberal free-agency system and an average salary that topped $1 million last year.
All of which makes Fehr justifiably proud, if not exactly giddy with mirth. The work is rewarding. It's the office of executive director that Fehr hates. "I don't do any work anymore," he says. "I go to meetings, talk on the telephone and conduct interviews. That's the nature of being an executive in America. You have to rely on other people to do something you used to do yourself."
While such a statement does not leave the listener rolling in the aisle, it is an excellent example of Fehrian humor: dry, acerbic, a touch cynical. He likes, for instance, to tell the story about a reporter who misunderstood a discussion of whether Fehr has a photographic memory. (He doesn't.) "It came out that I had a 'photogenic' mind," Fehr says. "People in the office started running around taking pictures of my ears."
"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.
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."
With a salary of about $550,000, Fehr is handsomely paid in comparison with most other labor lawyers, but an excellent case can also be made that he is the most underpaid man in baseball. "Money isn't irrelevant, but it doesn't motivate me," he says. "If this negotiation can be productive—that's a big if—maybe things can stabilize. And stability gives me greater freedom to consider other things."
He talks about one day opening a law firm specializing in litigation and, wistfully, about going back to school to study physics. Clearly there is a restlessness in Fehr, a desire to tap into some great intellectual challenge that will leave him as fulfilled as did his first years of running the players' union, when he slayed the dragon of collusion. As fulfilled, even, as did that first job, clerking for the federal judge. "People's lives turned on those decisions," he says. "I've never felt quite the sense of overall responsibility since."
Belanger, for one, has heard it all before, and he says Fehr's staying right where he is. "He's always talking about what he's going to do with his future," he says. "But I know better. Don's going to be here for a long, long time."
When Fehr finally does take his leave of the MLBPA, you can be sure of one thing: He won't leave 'em laughing.