Every since the first caveman picked up the first cudgel, went to his front door and smacked the first nosy saber-toothed tiger in the snout, mankind has known the atavistic power and pleasure of the bat.

From Robin Hood's quarterstaff to Paul Bunyan's ax, men of myth have loved the taper of a handle, the texture of wood grain, the centrifugal surge in the end of a whirling mass.

Axes and stout staves have dwindled in everyday use. Now, that ancient inherited desire for thudding force, for an instrument that will deliver a satisfying blow, has descended to the baseball bat.

What familiar sensation in sports is so universal as the pursuit of the perfect bat - the Old Ash, the Lumber, the Good Wood? From the office softball game to the World Series, who settles for the first weapon out of the rack?

Few things feel so annoying as the wrong bat. If it is too short or light, the frail thing seems unworthy of us, almost an insult. If it is too long or heavy, however, it is the bat's fault, not our own lack of strength. "Unwiedly," we say.

"When a bat feels just right, the balance is so perfect that it almost feels weightless," said Baltimore star Ken Singleton. "I've looked all my life for a bat that felt as good as the broom handles I used to play stickball with as a kid in the Bronx.

"I never have."

Call it "My Soul Pole" like Baltimore's Al Bumbry, or "My Business Partner," as New York's Jay Johnstone does, the bat is the most pampered, coddled, protected and defended piece of equipment in baseball.

"If you wanna rumble, just touch my lumber," says Boston's George Scott.

Of all the inanimate objects in sports - the balls and boots, gloves and goals, helments and harness - none is so intensely personal, so surrounded by lore as the ubiquitous Louisville Slugger.

Few things look so similar, yet hold such vital, almost mysterious qualities as a barrel full of big league bats.

"Every one feels different, even two bats of the same model," said Yankee Roy White, one of many players who swear they can tell if a stick is a half ounce off specifications.

"I once went five-for-five with five different bats. I kept switching 'cause none of them felt just right. After I got to three-for-three, I said, "Maybe I better keep switching."'

Tommy Agee, former New York Met, once got the szme notion on a grander scale, using 22 different bats on a 22-game hitting streak. "Worst hitting streak in history - 23 hits in 22 days," related Singleton, then a Met. "Agee was actually in a slump, but he kept switching bats every day."

S-2, K-55, R-43: these are the 'Star War' style names - such as R2D2 - that bats are known by.

Those letters and numbers burned on the barrel of each Hillerich and Bradsby weapon are shorthand for length and weight, degree of handle taper, nob style, and distribution of weight.

Even here there are superstars: R-116, the original Babe Ruth; O-16, the ever-popular Mel Ott, and the RJ-288, Reggie Jackson's new plaything.

Casually ask a player is that's a P-89 he's swinging and it's a better entree for conversation than a personal letter of introduction from Bowie Kuhn. Lots better.

However, some of the most infamous bats are unmarked or else have phony monikers. These are the outlaw breed.

"Sure, there are guys who will 'fix' a bat for you," says Yankee Graig Nettles. "When it comes back, it's like a Mafia hit gun . . . no serial numbers."

Four years ago, Nettles shattered his bat while hitting a routine fly ball against Detroit. Out of the demolished barrel bounced six ultraresiliant, ultraillegal Super Balls.

"Bill Freehan was catching and he dashed all over the place collecting the evidence," said Nettles sheepishly, thinking of those tiny black toys that even children can whack over tall buildings bouncing around home plate.

"I guess Bill thought they'd put me before a firing squad."

Nettles, however, knew the rules. Illegal bat equals automatic out. Nothing more. "What the hell," said Nettles to Freehan, "I was out anyway."

Many a well-loved bat is not made entirely of wood. Ted Kluszewski, Cincinnati batting coach, wa so strong that he embedded tenpenny nails in his bat barrel for contraband oomph.

Many a big leaguer has a "corked" bat or two for special occasions. Or maybe for every occasion.

"Cork a bat?" says Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver. "Easiest thing in the world. Hollow out the barrel with a drill. Fill it with cork. Put the plug end back in and seal it with plastic wood. You can't spot a good job with a magnifying glass. You gotta saw'em up to find anything."

But Weaver, of course, has never used one of the nefarious instruments?

"Never used one?" Weaver snorted. "I played on a team at New Orleans in the minors where every bat on the club was corked.

"I hit six homers that season . . . every one of 'em in the one month before they found us out.

"The umpries raided our clubhouse like they were the Untouchables. They destroyed the bats in public, right on the field.

"I wanted to cry."

Have the Orioles ever used corked bats?

"Never," said Weaver. "However, Norm Cash used to use one against us.We're sure of it.

"You can't yell 'Check his bat' every time a guy walks up to home plate. What's the umpire going to do? Carry a saw?

"If you're wrong once, then maybe they won't check him next time you cry 'Wolf.'

"But when Cash used to come up in crucial situations in the ninth, a bunch of us would all yell, 'Check his bat.'

"Norm would turn right around, walk straight back to the dugout and switch bats before anyone could touch it."

Just last month, Kansas City's Hal McRae, who, along with ex-Royal John Mayberry has long been accused of using bats that would float, had his Louisville Slugger confiscated by the umps. The authorities sawed the weapon into six pieces but found only sawdust.

"My favorite," says Nettles, "is a guy I knew in the minors who had a tube of mercury in the heart of his bat.

"Mercury's very heavy, so the tube was only partly filled. When he held the bat upright, it felt very light. But when he swung it, the centrifugal force of the mercury whipping out to the end of the bat made it swing like it weighed a ton."

What happened to Mr. Mercury?

"He never made the majors," grinned Nettles. "He had a great bat, but he couldn't hit the ball with it."

Even the universe of perfectly legal bats is far from prosaic.

Frankie Frisch hung his bats in a barn during the offseason to cure like hams. Honus Wagner boiled his in creosol, while Home Run Baker never revealed the ingredients of his secret ointment.

Jimmy Frye, Baltimore batting coach and minor league batting champ, had a treatment worthy of a bush league great: Frye soaked his bats in motor oil.

Some players will even smash their favorite bat against anything in sight. "The more you crush the wood on the hitting surface, the tighter the grain," says Johnstone. "The best thing is to find a bat with a knot in the wood right in the sweet-spot."

Ah, yes. Tight grain vs. wide grain. Every player has an opinion on which is better. Each has a different theory.

Regardless, when a player discovers the bat that was made in heaven for him, he guards it with his life.

"In five years I'm not sure I ever saw Ron Blomberg without his bat," exaggerates an ex-Yankee teammate. "In airplanes, hotel lobbies, I think he'd swing that thing when he was in the men's room."

"If I ever found the perfect bat," grins Johnstone, "I think I'd take it to bed with me.

Perhaps the most cherished of all bats was Jimmy Reese's ancient fungo.

Reese, a roommate of Babe Ruth and now a California coach, cut the barrel end of his fungo in half (length-wise) so the bat was flat on one side, round on the other.

With this wand Reese could hit a fly, liner or grounder to any target inside a hundred yards. Balls thrown back to him, he would deflect with the flat side of the bat and catch harmlessly with his bare hand. Reese even "pitched" Angel batting practice by hitting fungos from the mound.

One year Reese tortured an overweight pitcher named Bill Edgerton, making him chase countless spring training fungos that were inches beyond his straining reach.

"Edgerton left Reese's fungo in the whirlpool overnight," recalled Ray Miller, Oriole pitching coach.

"When we got to the clubhouse next morning, the thing had warped and flared out in all directions like some kind of weird flower. Jimmy just sat by the whirlpool and cried."

Ted Williams valued his bats so highly that he traveled to Louisville in the offseason, went to the factory and picked out the chunks of ash from which his splendid splinters would be dowled.

Williams technique: drop the wood on concrete and listen for the sound.

From that day to this, a man's progress could be measured by his bats.

A busher settled for standard models. If he reached a big league training camp, his name was stamped on his bats in block letters.

When he reached the majors, the block letters turned to script, and H&B took his personal specifications. A star might get his own model number, like Reggie Jackson's recently christened RJ-288.

"I was a block-letter man," grins Baltimore's Weaver. "Still got it in the attic somewhere."

No bats, of course, compare to the bats of memory.

"It doesn't seem to me that the wood is as good as it was 30 years ago," says Weaver. "HB had a fire years ago and I've always wondered if their best aged wood wasn't lost."

Singleton has a more unorthodox theory: "I think they've run out of good trees . . . Sometimes I go up to the plate with a bat that I'm sure God intended to be a chair leg."

Never say that to Brooks Robinson, the old Oriole who never met a bat he didn't like. "My garage is full of hundreds of 'em," Robinson says. "I got the last hit of my career with a bat that had hung over my mantel for 16 years.

"I took it down one night," said Robinson, giving that universal waggle of the hands that goes back to the Stone Age, "and I could feel the line drives still rattlin' around in it."