"I'm the only operator in baseball who has invested his entire bankroll, including his wife and children's inheritance, in a ball club - a bad ball club. For me, the ball club is eating or not eating. I can't afford to fail."

So Bill Veeck, president and chief imp of the Chicago White Sox, has caused nine witches to gather around a boiling cauldron at home plate on Friday the 13th. On Mexican Fiesta Night, Veeck's players wore sombreros. The Sox scoreboard, silent too long, again is volcanic. Best of all, the Sox, unraveling a year ago, are in a pennant race now.

A lot of people grow up believing baseball is the greatest game. They would pay to see professional football the day they pay to see a war. Forget basketball. Only sedentary millionaires play golf and tennis is Ping-Pong with snowshoes.

For those blessed multitudes who worship baseball, who feel good if only thinking about a hot dog in the bleachers. Veeck is their man. He has this outrageous idea about what baseball is and ought to be - fun.

"This spring I got in trouble with Chicago sports writers because I wouldn't talk about contracts and free agents and lawyers," Veeck said. "The fans - my customers - they don't want to read about that. That's what they're trying to avoid. It's life. Sports events are an escape from those things."

Ink enough to float Ted Turner's yacht has been spread across newspapers in explanation of the "changing" nature of baseball, the "revolution" of the players.

Veeck is 63 years old now, and he has been working at ball parks for a half-century. He has done everything from putting a midget at bat to conducting an invasion by men from Mars.But when asked how the game has changed, Veeck says it hasn't.

"Baseball is the least changed thing in our society," he said. "In a confused and confusing world in which the underpinnings are less stable than shifting sand, more like a quagmire, baseball is an island of stability.

"Except for the designated hitter, the rules haven't changed. Where else can you go in our society and find a clearly defined field of competition known to participants and contestants alike?

"And justice. Justice which is absolutely equal. Three strikes and you're out. It doesn't matter if Edward Bennett Williams or F. Lee Bailey defends you, three strikes is out.

"Where else in our society can you find equal justice? Wealth, color, influence - they have absolutely no bearing."

But if the rules haven't changed, what about the people running the games?

"Egos get involved in the game, and then they have to protect those ego," Veeck said. "These are not career baseball operators. These are successful businessmen from other fields who get into baseball for - who knows? - personal publicty, to buff and burnish those egos.

"And then they suddenly find themselves losing in baseball. Along comes the free agent. And these egos get involved in a giant auction of player contracts.

"The auction is a combination of giant egos and tax dollars. Well, we have no tax dollars here - it's no secret I'm one of the poorer operators - and my ego is not that large."

Is the game the worse for it?

"I don't know about that. But it minimizes the amount of fun in it." Veeck said.

For 15 years, from the frightening day in 1961 when Veeck sold the White Sox because he thought he had an aneurysm on his brain, Veeck was out of baseball.

Finally declared as healthy as any one-legged, beer-drinking, chain-smoking baseball man can be. Veeck made efforts to buy his way back in. He tried the Orioles, with the idea to play some games in Washington, but the deal fell through. Then came the White Sox.

"That man made it happen," Veeck said, nodding toward a picture of Richard Daley, the late mayor of Chicago.

With Daleys help, Veeck lined up the necessary money to keep the Sox in Chicago when some American League owners wanted the team moved to Seattle to stave off a lawsuit by that city. For his troubles, Veeck was rewarded with a very bad team.

And it quickly became very, very bad, finishing last in its division. "Last year I betrayed the White Sox fans who had dreams of 1959 all over again." he said. That year, Veeck's first with the White Sox the team won its only pennant since 1919.

Drawing at a beer today. Veeck smiled. "But you can't recapture the first, fine, carefree rapture."

Still, Veeck said, he felt an obligation to his customers, to say nothing of his wife and children's inheritance. He traded away some players: "Addition by subtraction." He signed some free agents: "From the bargain basement." And he traded for a slugger: "We got Richie Zisk for two relief pitchers, and what do you need short relief pitchers for if you're seven runs behind anyway?"

Suddenly, the White Sox are a team contending for first place in the American League's West Division.

Two new men, Zisk from the Pirates and Oscar Gamble from the Yankees, have 30 home runs between them. The team is hitting .284, and if the pitching "is dubious," as Veeck puts it, well, nothing is more fun than an 8-7 game.