Ninety-nine years ago "Orator Jim" O'Rourke got so furious at the Boston Beaneaters for being too clean to pay for his baseball uniform that he jumped the team and signed with Providence.

That is how the reserve clause was born - over the price of one uniform.

It has taken baseball a century to come full circle. The reserve clause is in its death throes now and once again a player, who thinks his team is welching on him, can take his contractural grievance to arbitration and ask to be made a free agent. Catfish Hunter did it.

"Enter "Gentleman Jim" Plamer, Ken Singleton, Mike Flanagan and their ex-teammate Rudy May who claim the Baltimore Orioles are tying to convince them out of bonuses promised in their 1977 contracts if they made "significant contributions" to the team.

The Beaneaters of 1878 cost themselves a future Hall of Famer in O'Rourke. The Birds of 1978 may cost themselves a pennant, and end up eating only crow, unless they stop inching pennies.

General manager Hank Peters made a name for himself last winter as the tough Bird who held the money line and came out smiling when nine rookies helped th O's to 97 victories.

Then, he was the mastermind of the Miracle on 33d St. Now, he admits that he is beginning to look like an intractable Scrooge.

"I guess I'm going to have to take the heat for awhile," understated Peters.

Indeed, he is taking it from all sides. "Not again," screamed fans when Ross Grimsley (14-10 defected recently to Montreal for $1.5 million after Baltimore dropped out of the free agent bidding early.

"Never again," stormed manager Earl Weaver and threatened to quit when May (18-14) was traded for the Expos righty reliever Don Stanhouse 10-10) without Weaver's final OK on the deal.

Now Peters is stonewalling on the "significant contributions" bonuses.

"The interpretation of 'significant is the sole judgement of the GM," says Peters, "and I say a 'significant contribution' has to be weighed against two things: what you expect of a player and what you're already paying him."

If Peters expected four of his smartest and best educated players to say "Yes, massa. Whatever you say, boss," after having excellent seasons, he was fooled. The bonuses may be relatively small change (the largest is Palmer's $15,000), but the principle is an infuriating as O'Rourke buying his own uniform.

"I was kinda proud of my insignificant contribution to the Orioles this year," says Singleton. "I'm not furious about this. I don't make many waves. But I know I'm right, and it's a matter of principle.

"I'm going to take this all the way down the line (to arbitration). It's just like a hanging curveball . . . I'm gonna swing hard."

If any player in baseball made an enromous, rather than just significant, contribution to his team, it was Singleton with his .29328 average (highest in O's history), 99 RBI and the second best on-base percentage in the game.

If the Birds MVP after the best year of his career doesn't get a penny-ante bonus which is almost invisible next to his $1.1 million five-year contract, what stunt will the Baltimore brass pull next? Ask the O's designated hitter to hawk beer in the stands when the tema isn't at bat?

Certainly Singleton's salary is huge, more than Socrates would probably think any ballplayer deserved. And Peters would get indigestion if he gave anybody a million bucks, even if it was Babe Ruth.

But Lyman Bostock is making three times Singleton's salary and they are comparable hitters. Last year Singleton let the Orioles sign him to a reasonable, longterm pact, rather than play out his option and join the free agent lottery. His caution and his loyalty may have cost him $2 million on the open market.

The Orioles are so grateful to Singleton that now they won't kick in an extra 10 grand which any shcool child can see they owe him.

Perhaps Rudy May, who fizzled in September, has gotten his full due for a solid season.

And Palmer has his gall to ask for another cent. He held the team back for four months with .500 pitching and his late rush barely made him worth his salary, let alone a bonus. For shame, Mr. Class.

But Flanagan (15-10), who finished the season 13-2, signed a multi-year contract in June before his torrid finish made him the flashiest young lefty avaliable. HIs case is as good as Singleton's: ironclad.

"If Peters goes through with an arbitration hearing, he's shooting craps with the heart of his team," said players' union president Marvin Miller. "They could all be free agents before opening day."

"We have paid these players all we owe them," said Peters, perhaps spliting hairs. Many in the Orioles organization assume that Peters, now that his bluff has been called, will deal with each player individually and that no arbitration-day gamble will ever come to pass.

Nevertheless, Peters has let the bitterness and bad faith of much of baseball's labor war rub off on him. His theory of player development is to build a strong loyal minor league system and let the high-rolling franchises eat each other like so many sharks.

If O's management doesn't come down from its pious fical soapbox they may find themselves paired with and shell out to the players who attracted 1.1 million fans last year, the New York Mets as stingy franchises which bluechip prospects consciously avoid.