PLATO WANTED moral art.

Baudelaire wanted art for art's sake.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner wanted winning art. During last year's World Series, he called on the "Star-Spangled Baritone," his DGLC - Designated Good Luck Charm - Metropolitan Opera Star Robert Merrill.

"When the Dodgers' manager, Tommy Lasorda, sees me in a Yankee dugout," Merrill laughed a few days before he led the Yankees to a big nationally televised Monday night win over the Red Sox on July 2, "he tries to get me thrown out of the ball park."

Lasorda should have managed before the Great War. The Anthem wasn't even the Anthem then, not to mention that a walk counted as a hit. Between the wars the Anthem became a part of all big games. After the Second World War it became a part of every game. And in 1968, during our most recent war, Jose Feliciano sang a syncopated version of it at Tiger Stadium that riled legions of patriots who felt that bombs should burst in air only to strict three-quarter time.

Today, on the eve of the OPEC War, the Anthem is just another chapter in the book called Winning Baseball.

"I got a good story for you," says Merrill. "For the fifth game of the World Series I wasn't scheduled to sing. The Yankees made a commitment a long time ago with a young singer in the navy band. When I got to the clubhouse entrance - I enter through the clubhouse just like the players - there are 10,000 kids outside; and when they see me, they start singing the National Anthem, you know, and asking me if I'm going to sing the Anthem "good." I tell them that I'm not scheduled to sing. Inside the clubhouse everybody asks me if I'm ready to sing. I have to tell them some one else is scheduled. "Oh no.!" they say. "You have to sing!"

"I sang the Anthem for the first two games in New York. That was very emotional, singing in the third game with the Yankees two down. Anyway, people got supersittious after we won. If Bob Merrill sings, the Yankees will win, you know. Sure, I want to sing, but I don't want to take a big opportunity like that away from the kid they had lined up to sing.

"When I got up to Steinbrenner's box, George says, "Bob, you got 25 minutes to get ready." I tell him, "George, you got somebody else scheduled to sing." Steinbrenner got mad and told me to forget that and sing. Finally, I tell him that I'll sing on one condition: if the kid sings with me. Okay. So I got down to the field, and ask the kid - I mean the young man. Well, he's a fan of mine and was thrilled to sing with me. It was almost game time.We have five minutes to rehearse.

"He had a pitch pipe, and down near the dugout they have a little emergency toilet for the guys that's about as big as a phone booth. We squeezed into that. I had to put my arms around him. We close the door and start singing the National Anthem. Then the door swings open and it's Yogi Berra! Oh, if I could tell you what he said! You should have seen his face!"

After rehearsing the Anthem, Merrill and the kid went out and sang it before the full house at Yankee Stadium and 130 million folks watching at home. And the Yankees won the crucial fifth game of the series.

The Dodgers had their chance in the '77 Series. They came back to Dodger Stadium two games up on the Yanks, but they didn't call on John Robertson.

"I told the Dodgers to use me. Instead they used people like Glen Campbell and Vicki Carr. I could have won the series," says Robertson, a California tenor who unlike Merrill has no track record at the opera houses of the world, and unlike Hollywood celebrities has no million-selling record. "I've made a careful study of it. You see, I can sing the National Anthem in seven keys. And whenever I sing in the highest three keys, B-flat to D-flat, the record for the team I sing for is 55 wins and 2 losses.

"It's not luck or coincidence.When I sing in lower keys, my record is about 60 percent wins. I really wanted to sing for the hockey playoffs, but the Kings had to use the guy who's sung for them longest.

"When I sing in D-flat and hit A-flat on "land of the free," I can feel the energy going out. When the game starts, I can see that the players are more energetic. When someone sings in a lower key, well, in that playoff game the Kings were sluggish. The Rangers beat them in overtime."

Statistics-laden baseball doesn't begin logging in the relationship between on-the-field phenomena and victory. Box scores never list the Anthem singers, not even for big games.

Except in the '68 World Series when, all the history books tell us, a rookie singer lost a hit at Tiger Stadium.

"I was punished for being myself," says Jose Feliciano, the blind guitarist, recalling that tumultuous day when he last sang the Anthem solo. In almost every interview he's had since the question of the "68 Anthem comes up.

"Jose is tired of talking about it. It was the sour point of his career, the low point," says Paul Schefren, Feliciano's publicist. "At the time he had his first big hit, but after the Anthem thing deejays started pulling the record. He wasn't trying to be subversive. He just sang the Anthem the only way he can. Even though he's blind, Jose is very sports-oriented. He's a baseball fan." The Tigers won the Series. They had to, for Jose. He should be in the Hall of Fame.

Most fans, even Hubert Humphrey, loved the way Jose sang, and his easy style of singing took root in places like Oakland where singers like Lou Rawls and Linda Ronstadt led the A's to three World Series championships in a row. Yes, led. Most singers will tell you that they're athletes too.

"Singers have to keep in shape just like ball players," Robert Merrill explains. "And a conductor is in front of us swinging a baton. Still, nobody is throwing anything at us at 80 or 90 miles an hour."

Ultimately, it is up to the fans to mesh the art of singing, baseball and the War of 1812.

Standing above the bright green grass or mottled Day-Glo Astroturf in the harsh noonday sun or in the special glow of early twilight, the fan must join in and sing that old war song about a nightime bombardment of a fort that's not even shaped like a diamond. And the fan must remember those murky lyrics (unless his team has a $2 million scoreboard that supplies them) that precede the only part of the Anthem everybody knows, to wit (in falsetto) "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air..." And the fan qua artist must make the image of bursting bombs jibe with his Proustian anticipations of those majestic fly balls that never seem to land.

And the American fan does it. Take it from Nelson Rockefeller, late collector and authority on art. When the Kennedy Center opened and the orchestra played the National Anthem, unlike most of the snobby audience, Rockefeller saw beyond Leonard Bernstein. He grasped what the art of the Anthem was all about. When it ended, Rockefeller let out a cheer.

Play ball!