In the winter of 1934 the late Clark Griffith was staggered by an offer of $250,000 for Joe Cronin from the Boston Red Sox. Cronin then was the Senator manager as well as their hard-hitting shortstop who also moonlighed as Griffithhs son-in-law. Griffith weighed all the facts and then made the deal.

Griffith rationalized his decision in simple, direct terms. "No ballplayer is worth that much money," he said.

When the Red Sox announced the other day that they had just ag reed to pay an outfielder $770,000 a year for seven years, there was instant temptation to paraphrase the late great Chilly Doyle, one of our favorite press-box malaproposists... "If Clark Giffith were alive today, he would be revolving in his grave."

Altogether, the Red Sox were agreeing to a $5.4 million bundle to tie down the services of their man Jim Rice. Otherwise he would be a free agent in another year, able to float his considerable skills on the open market a la Pete Rose, now a $2.4 million man with the Phillies at $800,000 yearly for three years.

A breakdown says that Rice will receive $4,280 for each game the Red Sox play, whether he plays in it or not. That this could tax thr credulity of Mr. Griffith is understandable. He was an American League pitcher in 1903 when Ed Delahanty, who had hit 376 for the Senators the previous year, was considered handsomely paid at $4,000 for the whole season. There are other records to show that the entire Washington payroll for an 18-player roster was $38,203.70.

Griffith would have other memories, including Walter Johnson's salary demands after winning 25 games in 1910. "I want $9,000 a year," Johnson said, "just as much as they're paying Ty Cobb." Four years later, when Johnson sought another increase, h e was met by the stern refusal of the Washington owner who declared, "Johnson doesn't warrant the $12,000 we're now paying him. He had a bad season. He won only 28 games."

In the light of the previous season of 1913 that was true. Johnson had pitched five one-hitters, 12 shutouts and won 36 games, losing only s even.

To emphasize this new age in baseball wages, it can be mentioned that Jim Rice last season was only a $150,000-a-year ballplayer, or a mere $825 per-game plodder. But his value rocketed at the end of 1978, when club owners took a look at some of the other numbers in his resume. Forty-six home runs, a.315 average, 213 hits, 121 runs scored and 139 batted in.

But the most telling item was those 406 total bases by Rice, an incredible bulge of 113 more than anyboday else in the league. Up there at the plate Jim Rice appeared to be looking down every pitcher's throat. Naturally, he was voted the league's Most Valuable Player. And, naturally, after Pete Rose shopped himself around and had to beat off the bidders before settling for his $800,000 a year, Rice's agent was alerted to all that big money out there.

Rice may lack some of Rose's traits, like the belly-down slides, and the ability to beat out infield hits and those masterful bunts. But he had other important virtues on his side. When you hit the ball out of the park there's no need for hustle on the bases, and as for bunts, there is some question if Joe DiMaggio ever bunted in his life. An it is a positive truth that Rice plays his position in the field better than Rose plays his, and he also happens to be 10 years younger.

[When he was voted into the Hall of Fame last week, Willie Mays gave his own assessment of Rice's worth, in terms of his own wider and greater skills. "If Jim Rice is worth $5 million, I'd be worth $9 million," Mays said]

There was a special urgency for the Red Sox to make certain Rice did not get away, what with madman George Steinbrenner eyeing him for the Yankees and other clubs drooling to bid for Rice. Up in Boston, the natives were becoming restless and muttering about the do-nothing attitude of the ownership in letting Luis Tiant get away to the hated Yanks.

Also, the Red Sox had exiled Bernie Carbo and Bill Lee, two other local favorites. The owners now recognized the danger of letting Rice play out his last season as a lame-duck here in Boston, a condition that would invite the hot anger of the populace.

As one of the teams best able to pay the new upper-upper scale for baseball athletes, the Red Sox are an anomaly. They play in the smallest and most ancient of parks, the only one with no upper deck, and with a mere 33,502 seats in an era of 60,000-plus stadiums. But so high is the baseball fever they generate as New England's regional team, they are the only AL club besides the Yankees to play to more than 2 million home attendance.

Then the Red Sox must have very rich owners?Well, yes and no. They actually are operated by a former second-string catcher and the team's former trainer.

When Haywood Sullivan and Buddy LeRoux tried to buy the team from the Tom Yawkey estate a year ago, they were flatly rejected for approval as ownership material by the American League. which viewed them as not credit-worthy enoughto take on such responsibilities.

Enter Mrs. Tom Yawkey, widow of the Red Sox owner and heiress of his interests in the 32 Wall Street corporations of which he was a director. When she agreed to keep a presence in the team, presto, the pair with insufficient funds of a month before, was approved by the league as prtners in the ownership picture.

One year later, they could underwrite the biggest player salary deal in baseball and keep Jim Rice happy, because Red Sox fans are more fanatical than any other breed. Even during last August and September when the collarpsing Red Sox were resolutely squandering a 12-game lead to give the Yankees the pennant, Fenway Park was a constant sellout. The daily message from the front office to the fans in Boston and New England was 'don't come near the park if you don't have a ticket."

It is the faith of these fans, the biggest item in any net worth statement of the Boston franchise, that was not to be tampered with. If, in the new economics of baseball, other clubs could justify their heated bidding for a Jim Rice, then the Red Sox could play that game, too, and play it better. CAPTION: Picture, Jim Rice of Red Sox went from a $150,000-a-year player to $770,000 per annum with the help of 406 total bases last year.; AP