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Donald Fehr has been executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association since 1983. ((Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press))

Donald Fehr is retiring as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association after more than a quarter-century in charge of the powerful labour union.

Fehr, who turns 61 next month, said Monday he will retire by the end of next March.

Subject to approval by the union's executive board, he will be succeeded by union general counsel Michael Weiner, his longtime heir apparent. Weiner will head negotiations heading into the expiration of the current labour contract in December 2011.

"I have no hesitancy in recommending to the players that he be given the opportunity to do this job," Fehr said.

A clerk to a federal judge who became the top lawyer to pioneering union head Marvin Miller in August 1977, Fehr took over as acting executive director on Dec. 8, 1983.

That was 2½ weeks after players fired Kenneth Moffett, the former mediator who had succeeded Miller following a 50-day strike in 1981.

Fehr led players through a two-day strike in 1985, then was voted the executive director's job on a full-time basis that December. His early years in charge were defined by management's conspiracy against free agents.

The union successfully charged management with conspiring against free agents following the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons in violation of the labour contract and settled the cases for $280 million US.

Enough was enough

"He's done so many good things for the game, even more so for the players," New York 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."

When Fehr assumed the top job 26 years ago, the average player's salary was $289,000. It had risen to $2.9 million by last year.

But while players made tremendous economic gains and fended off management's repeated attempts to obtain a salary cap, he has been criticized by some for not agreeing to drug testing until August 2002.

He presided over three work stoppages during his time in charge, with the brief 1985 strike followed by a 32-day lockout in 1990 and a 7½-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.

Led to drug agreement

Fehr headed negotiations for a divisive August 2002 drug agreement that was revised three times under congressional pressure. He decided he didn't want to negotiate the next labour 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."

There has been labour peace since then and Fehr developed a businesslike, if not warm, relationship with Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner since 1992.

Weiner, the longtime No. 3 official, has been with the players' union since September 1988 and has been its general counsel since February 2004. The No. 2 official is Gene Orza, chief operating officer.

The 47-year-old Weiner and Steve Fehr, the union leader's brother, were the primary day-to-day negotiators of labour 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, he met Monday in the union's conference room with Fehr and 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."

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.