Baseball men repeated it proudly, as if it were proof of the holiness of their game. Small boys learned it at home and at school. Generations of baseball fans accepted it as an unassailable truth. In America, it was an article of faith that verged on "thou shalt not" sanctity. As everybody knew: "You can't buy a pennant."

The prime case histories were offered by Phillip K. Wrigley and Tom Yawkey, rich men who defled the game's immutable law and discovered that baseball was the great leveler that did not respect tycoons. Wrigley and Yawkey, nice people, have since gone to greater rewards than they found as club owners.

Wrigley's freely spent chewing-gum millions could buy his Cubs only one pennant in the last 40 years. Yawkey's towering lumber and Wall Street wealth could fetch his Red Sox a paltry three pennants in 38 years and more disappointments than any other club owner.

So you can't buy a pennant?

Hogwash, piffle and twaddle. You can if your name is George M. Steinbrenner, who has three straight Yankee pennants to show for his own recognition that a rich man could now play the game under different rules.

Steinbrenner gave notice this week that he is working on a fourth straight pennant by using the same formula: Grab off the best pitchers available, no matter what the price. For a $1.4 million package, he had landed Tommy John, a big-winning Dodger malcontent. This was just after Steinbrenner gave Luis Tiant much more than the $250,000 a year the Red Sox were offering him.

A year ago in Florida, the Yankees' owner laid it all out of this fascinated reporter. He said he got his vision after the courts began creating almost free agents who xouls ties with their teams after playing out an option year.

"I called my front office together and said 'Boys, it's a new ball game and the name of it is money. Money is now as important as the balls and bats they play with and we're going to spend big and get the best players and win pennants and make a profit.'" He was right on every count, his utterances almost worthy of an oracle.

Steinbrenner had tipped his hand even before the courts acted to liberate all those who would be free agents. A year previously, when the blundering Charles O. Finley lost title to Catfish Hunter by withholding promised pay from him, Steinbrenner captured Hunter for the Yankees with a $3.5 million contract deal that boggled the baseball world.

Of the seven expensive free agents the Yankees have signed, six were pitchers, with outfielder Reggie Jackson ($2.9 million) the exception. If pitchers had been Steinbrenner's profession, who is to call it a foolish one? Connie Mack's utterance that "pitching is 75 percent of the game" is still regarded as valid.

For pitchers alone, Steinbrenner has paid out a total of $12.2 million in the past four years. This is noticeable if merely for the fact that he paid only $10 million for the entire Yankee franchise six years ago.

The rundown on Steinbrenner's spending binge for pitchers is, in millions: Catfish Hunter $3.5, Rich Gosage $2.7, Don Gullet $2.0, Rawley Eastwick $1.0, Tommy John $1.4, Luis Tiant $ .6.

In 1976, when the courts opened free-agent territory to all the club owners, it was Steinbrenner who waded in first with checkbooks in each hand before other, timid or less aware, owners could get their boots on. There were also owners like thos in Cincinnati and Kansas City who resented the new free-agent status given the athletes and vowed never to get into the bidding wars that Steinbrenner relished.

Bob Howsam, the Cincinnati boss and the most vocal against the bidding wars, was talking from strength. His Reds had just won four pennants in five years and were World Series champs. Howsam saw the Reds as a dynasty with little to fear from the competition. For that view, they have paid dearly. The Cincinnati team that won 108 games in 1975 could win only 88 in 1977 and 92 last year and were out of the playoffs.

The Reds and Kansas City reversed themselves recently, deciding to get into the free-agent business at this late date. They both made last-minute offers to John to dissuade him from signing with the Yankees. They were disappointed.

It is significant that John says he accepted less money to sign with Steinbrenner than both the Reds and K.C. offered him. Suddenly, the Yankees have charisma.Those three pannants have revived the glory of the old Yankees when pinstripes were a stamp of excellence and pride. The best teams that money can buy are also the best teams in baseball.

Steinbrenner has made it more pleasant for many players by moving Billy Martin out as manager and nice, unflappable Bob Lemon, a player's man, in. John said, "I know I'd like to play for Lemon." He and other prospective Yankees also know that each Yankee has a reasonable expectancy of getting one of those $32,500 World Series checks the Yankees have been cashing.

The Yankees' owner admits he's a gambler. When the Dodgers wanted Andy Messersmith from Atlanta, offering $100,000 for the pitcher on condition that he suited them in spring-training tryouts, they were upstaged by Steinbrenner. He gabe Atlanta the $100,000 with no conditions and agreed to take over Messersmith's $1 million contract. It was a total loss, with Messersmith coming up injured. Eastwick, another $1 million investment by the Yankees, never did get much chance to pitch and was dealt to Pittsburgh in mid-season. Steinbrenner says, "They were my mistakes."

Also giving witness that Steinbrenner is a gambler are the John and Tiant deals. John has a rebuilt pitching arm.

So what?Steinbrenner remembers that John won 47 games for the Dodgers in the three years since that operation, and also that he beat the Yankees in this year's first World Series game.

Only Steinbrenner would give the 38-year-old Tiant a two-year contract. But what the hell, the Yankees need pitching as fast as they can get it to stay on top, Steinbrenner reasons. It was this philosophy that Gossage, the ace reliever liberated from the Pirates. Without Gossage last season there would have been no Yankee pennant. No chance at all of making up those 14 games by which they trailed Boston in midsummer.

The details of the John deal reveal Steinbrenner as a master at concocting the deferred-payment plan that eases the problem of cash flow. First, there was the $350,000 bonus for signing, to be spread over four years. Then an annual salary of $185,000 for three years, plus an option year. Also an insurance policy and lastly, beginning in 1963, 20 years of pay as a special-assignments man for the Yankees.

It was one of those deferred-payment deals that was given Tiant in addition to his $200,000 for two years. Beginning in 1981, Tiant will draw $20,000 a year for 10 years as the Yankees' director of Latin American affairs, presumably to nudge latins to sign with the Yankees. Of his own vague special-assignment role in the future, John has suggested. "Maybe I'll be their director of mid-American affairs."

The whole thing has been wonderfully fulfilling for Steinbrenner. The man admits he is a jock, Basically. He is a regular around the batting cage in spring training likes the barracks banter and wants to be one of the boys. He played college football, was an assistant coach at Purdue, owns part of the Chicago Butles, has some resources and thinks in Kentucky Derby terms, and is elated about owning the Yankees.

He has bought more than the pennants. He bought a big niche as the master architect of winning teams in the game's new era. In spring training, nor other club commands the presence of network TV crews, plus Barbara Walters in jeans, eager to photograph the Yankees' expensive players. The Yankees are box office everywhere are playing to more than 2 million attendance on the road, and are spreading the wealth. And the reason is Steinbrenner, who has made his moneysuch as obedient servant.