IT TOOK HITCHING rides along the dusty North Carolina tobacco roads from Mount Airy through Pilot Mountain, East Bend and down to Winston-Salem for 16-year-old Bill Thomas to see his first professional baseball. He fell in love with the game.

There was some magic in those Piedmont League games in the spring of 1920, because as the years passed Thomas never outgrew his love affair and the game kept him young. This spring you can find him pitching for Ralph Wasko's College Park softball team. At 72 he's just about three times older than anyone else in the league, but you'd never know it.

"I thought we'd talk for a few minutes and then maybe go out and hit the ball around," Thomas greeted a stranger who stopped by to meet him.

After changing quickly into blue jeans, spikes and a baseball jersey he reappeared and led his visitor to nearby DuVal field. Suddenly the old man was a kid again.

Moving to his left, he speared a one-hop grounder, pirouetted, then feigned a toss to an imaginary second baseman to start a double play. His momentum sent him sprawling, but in a second he was jogging to the outfield to shag a round of fly balls.

After a half-hour of impressive catches, throws which could have nipped runners at the plate and one or two line shots which sent the stranger to the fence, it began to rain and the two called it quits.

"I guess I am an object of curiosity but I really wish everyone would just see me as one of the players," Thomas said. "I'm no star, but I give it everything I've got.

"I tell you, I'd really like to get out there and play some hardball - now there's a game."

Thomas began playing that game back in high school as a catcher and a pitcher and, even though he knew he didn't have the talent to play professionally, baseball kept luring him on.

He joined the Marines at 18 and immediately organized a barracks team. Flat feet prevented him from foreign duty assignment so, after being transferred to the Marine Corps Institute in Washington in 1922, Thomas joined an American Legion team that played every weekend on the Ellipse.

"When I wasn't working I was playing ball or watching the Senators - Walter Johnson, Sam Rice, Bucky Harris," he said. "Those were good baseball days."

In the late '20s Thomas signed on with the Railway Mail Service, a job that kept him on the road between Washington and South Carolina five days a week for 30 years. But he still managed to play YMCA-sponsored games between work shifts.

In 1965 Thomas retired, moving with his wife, Ella, to College Park. It wasn't long before baseball fever had him in its grip again. He found that there were few teams recruiting anyone over 60, so after several years of playing in various old-timers' games, Thomas decided to give softball a try.

"That's when I met him," said Wasko. "I was on a softball team he organized back in 1971 for the College Park League. We weren't real good so the next season Bill decided to let me coach, so long as he could keep playing.

"We can't always play him in tight situations," Wasko said, "but whenever he gets his chance he gives it his best. Sure, he gets his share of jokes and kidding, but everybody respects him. And he's really a pretty good player."

When Thomas isn't playing softball or spending time with his wife, he's likely to be riding his 10-speed bicycle or playing club volleyball. He's also involved in a grass roots program to get public handball courts built.

"I just think it's important to stay a part of things and to stay fit," he said. "Many people my age don't realize that there's a lot of ways to keep active."

Thomas' doctor has pronounced him in excellent condition and so he'll keep on drinking his one beer and smoking his one cigar a day. Still, he admits that the next three years will be difficult to endure.

"Hey, I'm only 72 and that means it will be three long years before I'll be eligible for the 75-and-over hardball league in town. Hardball . . . that's my game."