Author Heywood Hale Broun owes his title (and quite a bit more, which he cheerfully acknowledges) to Dr. Samuel Johnson, who defined sport as "Play; diversion; game; frolick and tumultuous merriment."

One of the basic themes that pull together what might have been otherwise a rather amorphous book is the sad obsolescence of that definition. "Who now, save an occasional small child, regards sport as diversion or as tumultuous merriment?" Broun asks rhetorically. His answer, scattered through the book's remaining pages, is pessimistic though not completely hopeless. Broun himself is one who still has that definition in mind. During his years as a sportswriter with CBS and various newspapers he did run into a few others -- mostly children or adults still in touch with the inner child -- who are able to play spontaneously, joyfully, without giving a damn about contracts and batting averages.

But they are the exceptions. A society which has made love a compromise between neurosis and manipulative technique has handed its sports over to Leo Durocher ("Nice guys finish last") and Vince Lombardi ("Winning . . . is the only thing.")

Broun'a opening question sadly answers itself: "How much frolick is there is the Ohio State-Michigan game, the modern Olympics, the Little League championships of a cross-roads country town?" But he has picked examples that we all know. Fortunately, he has also found less-known occasions in which the spirit of Johnsonian sport still survives. The secret of that spirit may lie in the protective obscurity that covers the activity.

Consider the Olympics, for example, founded in 1896 as "a fresh-air festival celebrating simple-minded ideals of health and fellowship." Next year in Moscow, we may expect to see again what we have seen before in the modern Olympics -- a grim confrontation in which national prestige and power are put at stake, and "amateur" athletes engage in titanic symbolic struggles where the tumult completely submerges the merriment.

Still, even at the Olympics, Broun has managed to find a corner where frolic took place. He found it on the frontenis court -- and it is no accident that a description of frontenis has to be supplied as soon as the word is introduced. "Each host nation," Broun explains, "is allowed to choose a sport that will be competed in on a nonmedal basis by such nations as choose to try, and the Mexicans love a game played by teams of four armed with paddles in the high cement-walled fronton that is used for jai alai. It is a kind of open-faced squash with chili sauce."

Since "no one north of Nogales had ever heard of it," the United States frontenis team actually approached thr original Olympic ideal: "They were truly amateur, had indeed paid their own expenses, and they had come to learn, to teach, and to meet fellow enthusiasts for the games of the artificially extended arm."

They were New York executives in publishing and the stock market, who could affort to be amateurs. At the other extreme are people poor enough to need and enjoy the spirit of pure play -- like the black schoolchildren of Ruston, La., who play their own kind of baseball on a country meadow.

"I would like to spend a year bringing Little League coaches to this field and making them sit silent and observant of the proceedings," says Broun. "At some point in the past a game had begun here, employing two old apple trees as bases and an embedded stone as home plate. An apple branch, polished with use, was employed in hitting rubber balls in varying states of repair to all corners of the field and as nearly as I could tell, players who hit a long shot could, like cricketers, make more than one run while the ball was being pursued through the weeds." Total scores in a game usually ran between 200 and 300 points, and the children were able to enjoy themselves because "no parents were present and no hardware stores advertised themselves on the children's backs."

Items like these are relative rarities in a book that is peopled for the most part with the standard material of sports reportage -- the synthetically colorful personalities of today succeeding the authentically colorful personalities of the past; young athletes who talk like young executives; trumped-up excitements and rivalries, and the high-handed callousness of the people behind the scenes who never forget, as fans and even players sometimes do, that sports today are big business.

Broun brings to all of this a cool, no-nonsense point of view, a recognition of absurdity and a refreshing awareness of the ultimate unimportance of the events he has chronicled. The book's continuity is somewhat patchy, understandable since it is pieced together mainly from the 600 scripts he wrote for CBS. But he brings to his task a level of literacy rare in his medium. One may excuse the occasional slip in exchange for the Johnsonian quotes that head each chapter and the Johnsonian common sense that pervades the text.