Fehr, who turns 61 next month, said he will leave the powerful union no later than the end of March. Fehr recommended that he be succeeded by union general counsel Michael Weiner, the No. 3 official and his longtime heir apparent. The move is subject to approval by the union's executive board and possible ratification by all players.
"I have no hesitancy in recommending to the players that he be given the opportunity to do this job," Fehr said.
The 47-year-old Weiner will lead negotiations for the next contract; the current labor agreement expires in December 2011.
Weiner and Steve Fehr, the union leader's brother, were the primary day-to-day negotiators of labor contracts in 2002 and 2006, baseball's first since 1970 that were achieved without a work stoppage.
"I think I have some sense of what I'm getting into," Weiner said.
As part of the succession plan, Weiner met Monday in the union's conference room with Fehr and the 92-year-old Marvin Miller, Fehr's predecessor.
"I think that he's a bright guy," Miller said in a telephone interview. "He's certainly not lacking in experience. He's got the background for it."
Fehr headed negotiations for five labor contracts plus a divisive August 2002 drug agreement that was revised three times under congressional pressure. He decided he didn't want to negotiate the next labor contract in two years and wanted to give Weiner lead time.
"After a while, it wears you down," Fehr said. "I think it will be good for everybody."
Weiner has been with the players' association since September 1988 and has been its general counsel since February 2004. The No. 2 official is Gene Orza, the chief operating officer.
Orza praised Weiner for "enormous intelligence and incredible energy."
"I'm sure when Michael becomes executive director, and he should, we'll sit down and chat about the future, bearing in mind of course that I'm even older than Don is," said Orza, who has been with the union since 1984 and turns 63 in July.
A clerk to a federal judge who became the top lawyer to Miller in August 1977, Fehr took over as acting executive director on Dec. 8, 1983. That was 2 1/2 weeks after players fired Kenneth Moffett, the former mediator who had succeeded Miller following a 50-day strike in 1981.
"I never thought I was in Marvin's shadow. I did think that I had an extraordinary example to look up and try and follow," Fehr said.
Fehr led players through a two-day strike in 1985, then became executive director on a full-time basis the following January. His early years were defined by collusion. The union successfully charged management with conspiring against free agents following the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons in violation of the labor contract and settled the cases for $280 million.
"He's done so many good things for the game, even more so for the players," Mets reliever and union representative J.J. Putz said. "But you know, he said enough was enough, and that he was tired. He felt that is was best for the union that he step down, and put a new face on it, and just another outlook. He feels that Michael's definitely qualified. So that's what we have to look forward to in the next nine months."
Baseball's average salary was $289,000 when he took over 26 years ago, and it rose to $2.9 million by last year. Although players fended off management's repeated attempts to obtain a salary cap, he has been criticized by some for not agreeing to drug testing until 2002.
"If we, I, had known or understood what the circumstances were a little better, then perhaps we would have moved sooner," Fehr said.
Weiner, like Fehr, was critical of purported leaks of Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa from the list of 104 names of players testing positive from the 2003 anonymous drug-testing survey. Federal prosecutors seized the list the following year before it could be destroyed, and the union sued for its return, litigation that is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"It is regrettable that the names have been out there,"' Weiner said. "It is regrettable that the government showed no respect for the collective bargaining agreement and, according to several judges, the Constitution."
Fehr presided over a two-day strike in 1985 followed by a 32-day lockout in 1990 and a 7 1/2-month strike in 1994-95 that wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years. That stoppage ended only when the National Labor Relations Board, at the union's behest, obtained an injunction to restore work rules from U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, nominated last month by President Barack Obama for the Supreme Court.
"It was very satisfying at the end to say that the players got through it, they got through it one piece and regardless of what it took to get there, they got a very good agreement," said Fehr, who ranked the agreement that followed as his proudest achievement.
There has been labor peace since then, with the current collective bargaining agreement running through the 2011 season, and Fehr developed a businesslike if not warm relationship with commissioner Bud Selig.
"Don has represented his constituency with passion, loyalty and great diligence," Selig said in a statement. "Although we have had our differences, I have always respected his role."
Fehr said he hopes bargaining will remaining peaceful, but he's confident the union would strike if necessary.
"Players will do it," he said. "I have very little doubt about that."