The bumper-to-bumper crush of cars, horns blaring and radios blasting, meandered along the detour on Charles Street in Baltimore last weekend en route to Memorial Stadium where the Orioles were battling the New York Yankees for first place in the American Leagues East.

To the Orioles, the cacophony was sweet music. The Orioles love a traffic jam.

Rarely has a baseball team perform so consistently well, before so few fans for so long. While fans in other cities tote sleeping bags for overnight vigils in the ticket-window lines on the eve of a World Series, Oriole fans have been able to buy tickets while the National Anthem is still playing.

Since 1963, the Orioles have had only one losing season - in 1967 when they were 76-85. Since then, they have played in three World Series (1966, 1969, 1970), won one (1966) and finished first in the AL East three other times (1971, 1973, 1974).

But, even in 1966, with a 97-63 record, they drew only 1,203,366 persons to Memorial Stadium during the regular season. They were outstripped by second-place Minnesota with 1,259,374 and sixth-place California with 1,400,321.

The Orioles have traditionally attracted large crowds when the arch-rival Yankees and Boston Red Sox come to town. Last weekend, before the four-game series with the Yankess, for example, the Orioles had attracted 555,133 persons after 39 dates, trailing last year's 596,996 for the same number of games.

But, with a three-way race among the Orioles, Yankees and Boston for first place in the AL East, the Birds' attendance jumped to 709,968 for 43 dates, ahead of last year's draw of 661,098 for the same number of dates.

The Yankees are the difference at this point in the season. However the Yanks won't be back to Baltimore this year because of scheduling problems arising from AL expansion. Boston will be back in mid-September.

Why don't the Orioles draw better - especially since they're the only major league team between Philadelphia and Atlanta?

The Baltimore organization isn't sure of the answer and is hoping to find some clues through three separate surveys being taken this summer - of ticket plan-holders, fans at the game and spot surveys along the highways between York, Pa. and Washington D.C.

The average attendance of around 15,000 in the 52.137-seat stadium while not embarrassingly low, does not reflect the fact that the Orioles are one ofthe best teams in baseball playing in a metropolitan area of 2.1 million. (Only eight home games are televised a year so that doesn't seem to effect attendance.)

Alan E. Harazin director of business affairs for the Orioles, said two of the fan surveys will probably not be finished until late September. A survey of roughly 700 persons who did not renew subscription to game plans this year, has produced some answers.

There are about 6,000 plan-holders. Those who did not renew cited a variety of personal reasons such as a move from the area, Harzin said. Some canceled because the Orioles refused to get involved in the free-agent bidding war last year.

Oriole board chairman Jerold C. Hoffberger said yesterday that he has no regrets about side-stepping the million-dollar player auction and observed happily, "We've been doing great. We've been playing really exciting baseball."

Hoflberger who buys his own season ticket is a proponent of two 13-team leagues. He said he thinks interleague would help increase attendance for all clubs.

Theories on why the Orioles don't draw larger crowds are numerous but tend to focus on such near-universal complaints as poor parking facilities, concessions and access.

In random interviews last weekend at the stadium with about 40 fans from Baltimore and its metropolitan area, those points were made repeatedly. Some people differed on whether the adjacent neighborhood of seemingly middle-class homes was "safe."

A blue-collar town the economic base of which is tied to heavy industry and shipping. Baltimore has been called a "bad sports town" by even some of its own sport fans. With so much competition for the entertainment dollar, fans have to be picky about how they spend it, several remarked.

"If you want me to tell you the truth, it's a poor sports town," said George Taylor an inspector for the county who goes to about six games a year. "I don't understand why, but people just don't support their teams."

He cited the exodus of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team to Washington and the closing of the Baltimore Raceway where he once worked because of poor attendance.

"Don't let anybody kid you. Baltimore people are sports people," said George Paris, a bartender from Cartonsville. "The Orioles fans are good fans if you give them what they want.

"But , I think they should build a stadium out in the country where you can get to it easily. A lot of people from Howard County and Washington have to leave two hours ahead to make sure they can get a parking place. There's no way you're going to wait for a taxi or a bus to pick you up after the game."

There were plans recently to build a replacement for the 25-year-old stadium either in the suburbs or downtown at the Cameron Station. The plans fizzled when a suggested bond proposal was rejected.

"The team 's support is on the outside of the city. People just don't like to drive downtown into the city," said Frank Siegert, a sales manager from Reisterstown who attends about 10 games annually. "Some people are afraid to come out here at nighttime because it's the center city."

Mark Cohen, a Baltimore accountant who attends about eight gamesa year theorized that the cold weather the first two months of the season affects the overall attendance figures.

"It's just too cold the first two months," he said, then reflected. "But that doesn't stop Boston fans. There are about 15,000 seats with obstructed views where no one wants to sit.

The Orioles have traditionally had the lowest prices in baseball. There was a slight increase in ticket prices this year but bleachers still cost $1 and senior citizens and children under 12 can get a general admission ticket for $1.25.