His friends said it was a memorial service that Malcolm Baldrige, the Connecticut cowboy, would have liked: simple and direct, with few words.

President Reagan, the only speaker at yesterday morning's 30-minute service in the Washington Cathedral, praised Baldrige for his humanity and lack of pretense and said that like the cowboys he loved, the late commerce secretary possessed "the best of the American spirit."

"I could always count on him for the truth as he saw it, no matter how unpleasant or unpopular," the president said.

Baldrige, 64, who maintained his hobby of professional rodeo riding during his years in the Cabinet, died Saturday night in California after his horse flipped over and crushed him as he was roping calves.

He was one of three Reagan appointees who remained a Cabinet member since the president took office in 1981. Much of official Washington and many of Baldrige's cowboy friends came to the service to pay him homage.

Congress halted the Iran-contra hearings for the morning, and many legislators joined the diplomatic corps and executives from all of the agencies to attend the tribute.

"He was a hell of a man . . . an individualist who could speak to our people," said former House member Clem McSpadden of Oklahoma, a rodeo announcer and ex-president of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys of America. "There wasn't any pretense about him. He was, as we say, as common as pig tracks."

Baldrige, who as a business executive and government bureaucrat eschewed colorless and imprecise language, would have appreciated that tribute, as well as Reagan's six-minute eulogy, his friends said.

The president, in a speech that brought tears to Nancy Reagan's eyes, recalled Baldrige's love of cowboys and how he did not come immediately to the telephone when he was about to be offered a Cabinet job.

"He was out on his horse roping, and couldn't come to the phone," Reagan said. "Right then, I knew he was the kind of man I wanted."

As commerce secretary, Baldrige allowed only two things to interrupt his work: a phone call from the president and calls from "any cowboy" who telephoned, the president said. "Well, I'm honored to have been in that company."

The ceremony drew heavily from the Book of Common Prayer and its English text dating from the 15th century. But the service, led by Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), an Episcopal priest, and the Rev. Roy Pfautch, a Presbyterian minister and Washington lobbyist, was replete with references to Baldrige's love of cowboys.

The organist played a hymn that contained refrains such as the one in the cowboy song "Get Along Little Doggies," and the program contained a copy of "A Cowboy's Prayer."

"Lord, help the rest of our nation in these trying times to be a nation as a rodeo cowboy is," the prayer began. "A nation . . . not afraid to take a chance, not afraid to try . . . "

Baldrige's friends said they were glad he was pursuing the hobby he loved when he died. "I hope this is not bad to say," said Undersecretary of Commerce Robert Ortner, "that he probably was happy that he died with his boots on."

The secretary will be buried today near his home in Connecticut after a service at which Vice President Bush and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) are scheduled to speak. Although five busloads of Commerce Department employes attended yesterday's service, they will hold another service this morning -- a tribute to Baldrige's popularity among career employes, a department spokesman said.

"He was making positive remarks about the careerists in government at a time when it was not fashionable to do so," said Commerce spokesman Malcolm Barr. Baldrige once said he came to Washington like many business executives, wary of the bureaucracy, but he was quickly impressed by the workers and went out of his way to praise them, Barr said.

The service "touched all the attributes that Mac possessed," said Doug Sellars, an Agriculture Department employe and cowboy from southeast Idaho, who appeared wearing a straw cowboy hat and string tie.

"He was quite a guy. We'll miss him and they'll miss him," said Jim Dance of Walcott, Conn., who remembered roping with Baldrige in Connecticut's small rodeo community.

House Republican Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois said that in a city of huge egos, Baldrige stood apart. "He was one super simple guy. He was just down-to-earth, down to Main Street. He was for real."