He was a young Boston Irish pol when they started calling him "Tip." The name belonged to a 19th-century baseball player with a knack for fouling away pitches until he walked or got one he could handle. In Boston, they thought this was a good name for Thomas P. O'Neill, the man who would become speaker of the House of Representatives. He, too, had a knack for hanging in there.

O'Neill knows his baseball. He remembers his first game at Fenway Park when Walter Johnson pitched a no-hitter; he always knew the score. Today, he knows who's been grousing on the bench, and knows the young players are impatient. And he knows when it's time to hang up the uniform. The way his friend Carl Yastrzemski did last fall after 23 glorious years with the Red Sox.

"Yeah, I'd do it like Yaz did it," says O'Neill. "Yaz did it good. He didn't hang around too long. He was still getting a salary of a half a million dollars a year. He went out with class and grace and dignity."

Tip O'Neill's last season began yesterday, when he was reelected speaker, chosen by acclamation to lead the only section of the federal government that Democrats control. He is 71, and will retire at the end of this two-year term after 34 years in Congress, 50 years in public life. Some (mostly Republicans, but a few Democrats too) think Tip has already hung around too long.

Like an old ballplayer? He shook his head. "I'm going to retire because there comes a time for the manager to step aside for someone else to run the party."

Which is exactly what Rep. Charles Stenholm, the Texas Boll Weevil, said after announcing that he would not challenge O'Neill for the party leadership. "It was important that we change the coach," Stenholm said. "If you can't change the coach, you change the game plan."

After the caucus, the reporters and the TV cameras gathered under crystal chandeliers in the Speaker's Rooms to ask his feelings. He spoke about the need for new ideas and said the conservative voice in the party would be heard. But everyone in the room knew the plain truth: Tip O'Neill's game plan never changed. In an era of neo-liberals and Yuppies and yellow ties, there is nothing neo about him. Tip O'Neill has remained faithful to the liberalism of his youth. For this, he has been vilified. His very largeness became a symbol of all that Republicans said was wrong with the Democratic past: too much spending, too many promises.

Of course it hurt. He answered the question indirectly. "I'm ever the optimist," he said. "I always felt the president Reagan was wrong. I felt somebody had to stand up. I go back to the days when I opposed the Vietnam war. I was as friendly as anybody could possibly be with Lyndon Johnson. He said, 'I don't mind these other guys. But you!?!' I said, 'Mr. President in my heart and guts, I can't live with us being in that war.' "

There is emotion in his voice just as there was emotion in the caucus room and a standing ovation, too. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), who was elected secretary of the caucus, replacing Geraldine Ferraro, said, "They were calling him the greatest speaker ever . . . He's truly loved. He's not going to be your typical lame duck anything."

"It's nice to go out and know there are people who have faith and trust in you, who would fight for you," O'Neill said. "I have that."

"Sure I'll have regrets, no question about it. How can you be 50 years in public life -- I'll be 74 years old. But you're only as young as you feel in your heart. I love this body. I love the action. Of course, I'm going to be remorseful. No question about it. I used to have an idea I'd like to stay around as an elder father for a while. But no. When you cut the cord, cut it clean.

"I told them. I'm in the twilight of my career. Two years from now, I'll draw down the shades and make a quiet exit.