In the last days and hours before baseball reached its almost-miraculous last-minute labor settlement, four worried and disgruntled owners were perhaps the strongest voices arguing for what baseball now has: a temporary truce until the end of this season.

Edward Bennett Williams of Baltimore, Peter O'Malley of Los Angeles, John McMullen of Houston and, at the end, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees finally mollified their follow owners and forced Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to get off his duff and enter the negotiating fray.

Perhaps two incidents best symbolize the behind-the-scenes turmoil and mounting sense of imminent crisis as these baseball "liberals," and their few allies, tried to convince baseball's ownership to abandon its tactic of precipitating a players strike.

First, we recreate a confrontation between two owners -- one very old and very angry, the other much younger and determined to be dispassionate.

"We're being absolutely inflexible. Our negotiating position is locked in concrete," protests the young owner. "We must show some movement.

"The worst thing we can do is try to win a strike by breaking the players' union and destroying (union leader) Marvin Miller. That's an awful, poisonous idea. Nobody wins a strike. We're destroying our own product and doing ourselves irreparable institutional damage."

"Let's take it (a strike) now, instead of next spring. I'm ready to take it now and tough it out," says the old owner.

"Good God, what do you mean. 'Take it now?'" says the incredulous younger owner. "Do you know what you're saying?

"If somebody's going to nuke you (unleash a nuclear attack), do you say, 'Okay, nuke me now, I'm ready. It's better than nuking me next spring?'" says the younger owner.

"What we're facing is devastation for several franchises. Hell, if we do it your way, maybe we'll get lucky and we can get nuked now and keep on getting nuked right through next spring."

What baseball's owners have accomplished with the current agreement is the equivalent of putting off the next potential attack by the players until the spring of 1981.

The owners have agreed to maintain the current free-agent quo through this season.

Largely for cosmetic purposes, the owners have been given -- on paper -- the right to institute next spring the system of partial compensation that they have been seeking.

That new system, however, exists only on paper, because the players, under Friday's early a.m. agreement have not given up their right to strike over the issue of free agency.

When a union has not given up its right to strike over an issue, then, in fact, it hasn't given up anything.

A committee has been appointed to devise a new system regarding compensation and free agency. Translation: the two sides will simply continue to negotiate, but now the two primary antagonists -- Miller and owners' representative Ray Grebey -- will not actually be at the table.

One problem in reaching this partial meeting of minds was the absence of leadership from Kuhn.

Again, we recrate a scene between a deeply worried and financially strapped owner and Kuhn just days ago.

"Bowie, we're getting no leadership in this," says the owner, "Lead, Bowie. Take charge, Bowie. We (the owners) are desperate for it. It's going to be on your tombstone: Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner When Baseball Died.

"Forget the rest. Just remember one thing. What you do now will be your epitaph."

During the last three negotiating sessions, Thursday and early Friday morning, Bowie was in the middle.

At 3 a.m., he called Williams at his Potomac, Md., home, awakening one of Williams' children.

"Dad's asleep," said the youngster.

"Well, he'll want to wake up," said Kuhn.

"I got terrific news," the ecstatic Kuhn blurted to the groggy Williams. "It's settled. Let me tell you the terms."

"Great, great," said Williams. "I don't care about the terms right now. I've got people to call."

And that has been the mood throughout baseball all day: joy at a crisis averted and realization that the particular terms are irrelevent since they simply represent a delaying tactic.

"I have made my views known throughout baseball," Williams said yesterday. "I wasn't bashful. Perhaps some people would say I was obnoxious.

"I was insistent. I kept hearing other owners say, 'I hear what you're saying,' It made me furious. I told them, 'I don't question your hearing. I question your comprehending.'

"I felt that a strike would be devastating to the game and would have a crushing economic impact on me," said Williams, 100-percent owner of the Orioles and 100-percent bearer of a multimillion-dollar loan at an interest rate two points above prime at the time of purchase.

"I refused to believe that false pride and intransigence could prevent people from reaching out and shaking hands on an economic issue. There was no principle involved, but a lot of people were reacting and digging in as though some great idea were at stake.

"Both sides should win Oscars because, as of last night, I saw no reason for hope -- not the slightest hint of movement on either side."

The group of four, of which Williams was one -- "My staunch allies" he calls the others -- helped bring about one key gesture on the part of management.

"When we finally said, last week, that the status quo could be maintained for the remainder of this year and that we would ensure that we would not declare an impasse in negotiations, I thought that was a dramatic breakthrough, a real change of mood," Williams said. "When the players rejected that quickly and flatly, I became seriously worried. If we had had a stoppage, it would have been the worst professional day of my life. I went around to people all Tuesday and Wednesday, either in person or on the phone, saying, 'We have to do anything to stop a stoppage. After the players go out, everything will be much more difficult to resolve than if the game goes on.' I thought a temporary truce was the best we could hope for.

Williams now maintains, as do all owners, that the current settlement is "a dream." It isn't, but optimistic rhetoric is a promising change.

Perhaps the largest single contribution of those owners -- particularly the rich and powerful O'Malley and the eloquent Williams -- who argued for temperance was their perception that this crisis had emotional roots, rather than purely economic ones.

"You have to take the recrimination out of negotiations," Williams said. "It does no good to curse Marvin Miller. He has always been a groundbreaker -- the man out front. Your goal cannot be defeating him, because you don't beat a good man. But you can reason with him and compromise."

The Orioles also sent ripples through baseball last week when they signed Doug DeCinces, the American League player representative and the most visible union man in his league, to a three-year, million-dollar contract. m

"That was a signal to the rest of baseball that we would not be punitive and recriminative," Williams said. "It sent out tremors. Other owners regard Doug as perhaps the most articulate of the player-spokesmen.

"No one in management said to me, 'What the hell did you do that for?' I assume some were thinking it.

"We would not have signed Doug just to be symbolic if the contract had not been a wise one for us. But I'm glad it worked out that way."

For whatever it is worth, the Orioles, a strong union team, are probably now as foresquare behind the management of their franchise as any team has ever been.

The importance of intervention from Kuhn and concerned owners became increasingly important in the final breakthrough stages because, as one party close to the negotiations on the players' side put it, "Ray Grebey is a good, tough negotiator, but he was getting himself painted into a corner.

"He wouldn't really talk or discuss issues. He just hid behind that hard front of immovabililty. It became increasingly clear that if the owners had been at the table, not their representatives, that progress would have been made much faster. Toward the end, he might have been getting worried about his job."

Those final hours before the players' strike deadline brought into focus the true stakes that were on the table.

"If you stop football with a strike, you stop the whole payroll," said Williams, also president of the Washington Redskins. "It's easier to weather a strike.

"In baseball, you have to continue to meet a huge minor league payroll -- $2.5 million in our case -- with no income rolling in. That makes a big difference.

"Much more important, though, is the long-range damage to the game. People never fully return to their previous entertainment habits after a long strike," he said.

"With the Redskins, we used to have sellouts for all preseason games. Since our strike several years ago during preseason, we have never sold out those games. I think it is connected.

"We came very close to a very bleak day in the history of baseball," Williams said. "Instead, we have seen one of the happiest and most important single days in our sports history.

"Now, I have to go," he said. "I have to go to Baltimore to see a baseball game."