HE ALWAYS wanted to tell Jackie Robinson thank you. For being first. For being there when he was a 4-year-old and his father put on the old black and white television set and let him see that, baseball, too, was finally black and white.

Years later, when he was a major leaguer and got a chance to meet him, Ken Singleton didn't know what to say. "I couldn't express the gratitude I had," he said, gazing toward second base, thinking of Robinson. "A year later he was dead. I still feel bad about that."

It has been a particularly quiet spring for Baltimore's understated superstar. Last month, with the Orioles languishing below .500 and his batting average below .225, Singleton said, "If I'm not hitting .300 by the end of the season, there ought to be an investigation."

In a recent 11-game stretch Singleton hit .512 -- 20 for 39. He has raised his average from .236 to .282, with 11 home runs and 37 RBI. That's a little behind last year's pace but "not bad if you project it over the entire season," he said.

Last year, Singleton was fifth in the league in home runs (35), sixth in RBI (111), fifth in on-base percentage (.409), ninth in slugging percentage (.533), and second in the MVP balloting to the Angels' Don Baylor. Yet, after nine years in the majors, he is still best known for the time he developed an allergy to the woolen uniform he wore while playing for the Montreal Expos.

Singleton will not do anything rash.

Mark Belanger, his best friend on the team, said. "He's not the type of person who says, 'I'll push me on you.' The perfect comparison is Reggie Jackson and Ken had better stats last year than Reggie."

Indeed, Singleton had six more home runs and 22 more RBI than Mr. October. His on-base percentage was .409 to Jackson's .395.

"How do I compare with Reggie? Very low -- in payday and ink."

For Jackson, a baseball stadium is a theater in the round built for 500-foot soliloquies. Reggie is rarely upstaged.He knows what it means to seize the time, especially prime time.

Singleton says, "I come through on radio."

Last fall, Singleton had a chance to be Mr. October. He batted .357 in the World Series. But in the eighth inning of last game, with the Orioles losing 2-1 and two out and men on first and second, Singleton was walked intentionally.

"I knew I wouldn't get a chance to hit," he said. "I was upset. I could have been the hero. But, when I got in the batter's box, I knew it wasn't going to happen. If it was Reggie, the bases would have been loaded already, and he would have hit.

"Everyone would like to have the chance to come through at the right time. It happens to me. But not on Monday, or the Game of the Week. I hit the home run the next day."

Why? Perhaps because the only small thing about Singleton is his ego.

Jackson once patrolled the right-field turf in Memorial Stadium now known as Ken's Korner. He says, "Singleton's a super player. Super. But he'll take a pitch even if it's just two inches off the plate."

The implication is that the big man in the order must clean his plate, even if it means swinging at some pitches not to his liking.

"I'm gonna walk," said Singleton. "I got a guy behind me who's going to do his thing, who can hit the home run. The way I look at it, the important thing is to get on base. The more opportunities you get the more you score. I just don't feel I'm that accomplished a hitter that I can swing at bad balls and get a hit."

For Singleton, batting is a craft; he is its artisan. He is, as Manager Earl Weaver says, the proverbial "student of the game."

Pitching coach Ray Miller, who swears he pitched against him in Class AAA, though Singleton does not remember it, said, "He analyzes the way you're trying to pitch him and makes you change. I remember once in spring training, Rick Wise was pitching for Boston and Kenny said, 'He'll throw a fast ball away for the first pitch and if it's not a strike, he'll go high 2-0, and then throw the change-up.' He hit the change-up off the wall for a double. And I've seen him do this six or seven times since I've been here."

Singleton's value to the Orioles is his versatility. "If he hit fifth in the line-up he'd have more RBI," said Weaver, "but he can do both. He can drive in runs in the first inning, or he can get on base. He got 109 walks and 35 home runs. His on-base percentage is .406, which shows he is a star."

Then why isn't he widely recognized as one?

"It's not because he plays in Baltimore and not because he's quiet," Weaver said. "There's nothing flamboyant about him. He's just steady in all categories. But I doubt he'll ever lead the league. He's not going to lead the league in stolen bases. Maybe in walks. In average and home runs? There's always going to be somebody there who's just got a few more."

"Birds' Singleton Model of Consistency" -- headline, Cumberland Times, 1977

"O's Singleton, Model of Consistency" -- headline, Baltimore News American, 1979

"Just like I wrote it," he said.

Singleton has heard it all before. "Steady. Consistent," he said, wriggling up his nose in mock distaste. "Those things tend to get overlooked. A reporter in New York told me that the reason I finished second in the MVP baloting was because I was consistent all season, no peaks and valleys. Baylor got all his RBI in a rush.

"I'm too damned consistent."

This spring, a reporter wanted to find out "what kind of guy you are."

Singleton, who could lead the league in wry smiles, laughed and said, "I thought nobody was supposed to know."

Teammate John Lowenstein said, "He's a quiet person. Outgoing in his own way. He has a lovely family and I believe he drives a Buick."

Chevrolet.

Singleton grew up in New York City, in a house once owned by Ralph Branca. And when he was 5, his father took him to his first major league baseball game at Ebbets Field to see Jackie Robinson.

"We had the Dodgers on the TV all the time. But it wasn't in color. I can still remember that day, the contrasting colors of the infield, the color of the fans' shirts in the seats, the signs on the fences. I can remember my mom said, 'Don't sit too close.' (They sat high up along the third base line.)

"I still do not like to see my wife bring the kids and sit down too close. "They sit up there, behind the screen."

Singleton still doesn't like to get too close. He has remained behind a screen. Yes, he says, "maybe there is a little bit of a buffer zone."

And maybe it goes back to that first day at Ebbets Field. "To me," he said, "the impression of baseball over the TV, the ballpark, seemed immense. I was relatively shocked at how small it was, how condensed it was. You could see the whole field. It wasn't bigger than life."

And it still isn't, he said. And it shouldn't be. "People make more out of baseball than they should," he says. "Some of those people are fanatically attached to a point of life and death. There are a lot more important things than this pennant race. There are 50 people who have been held hostage longer than a season."

Singleton has his priorities in the batter's box and out of it. His sense of them is as clearly defined as his sense of the strike zone.

"Maybe I should tear up a few clubhouses and say a few things totally unrelated to baseball," he said. "Maybe I should be a politician. But I'm not. I do my job, I go home and play with my two boys and take my wife out to dinner once in a while."

He's the kind of guy you'd like to take home to meet your mother. Colette Saint-Jacques did in 1973, but her mother didn't speak English. For that matter, neither did she.

When they met at the Montreal Forum, while Singleton was still playing for the Expos, Colette did not know he was a baseball player, which is "one of the reasons I was attracted to her," he said.

Colette Singleton is white. "In the back of my mind," Singleton said, "maybe that's the reason I got traded here (in December, 1974). It worked out, as I knew it would. What counts to me is the type of people my wife and I are. I don't care what others think. If I did, I wouldn't have married her."

Perhaps, it was suggested, he has shunned the limelight in order to dodge the potential barbs of bigotry. "Sometimes I ask him the same question," said his wife. "We don't go out a lot and I ask him if he is embarrassed to show up with me. He always says, 'Never. I would never have married you if that was the case.'

"He doesn't like to argue," she continued. "He'd rather get out of a conversation when he doens't agree. I don't think that's right. I tell him you should give your own opinion more."

Some people would rather that Singleton be less agreeable and more a leader. "You can rant and rave but it's not going to make anyone hit better," Singleton said. "And maybe they'll end up hating you."

"You've got to classify leaders," said Belanger. "Frank Robinson led by example and was to a point outspoken. Brooks Robinson led by example and never said a thing. Kenny is a leader on the field in an outspoken sense but not off the field."

Singleton does a lot of things quietly. Earlier this season at Yankee Stadium, he was standing by the batting cage when a ball rolled toward the stands where a little boy stood with his mother. An officious batboy whisked the ball away. Singlelton called another batboy over and told him to give the boy a ball. "Nice looking mother," Singleton said.

Other players would have done as much, but they might have done it more ostentatiously, in a way guaranteed to gather the recognition his wife says he wants. "But inside maybe he might not be able to say he wants it," she said.

"She could be right," he said. "She knows me better than anyone else."

He is ambivalent. He would like the recognition, and certainly the money. The endorsements? The adulation? He's not sure.

Singleton thinks it is "unfair" for people to compare him to the media superstars in his profession because, he said, "I don't look at myself that way. I look at myself as someone you can depend on. Those guys the guys that are on television all the time, like Reggie.

"The people who sell things, maybe they don't fell I'll sell something, or that you can't sell them in Baltimore."

But, of course, he added, if he played in a big type town, "I'd probably turn down a lot of things and people would be aggravated with me for not doing them. I must be here for a reason."

Singleton's five-year contract with the Orioles, reportedly worth $225,000 a year, expires after the 1981 season. He says "that figure is too high," but points with ironic pride to a poll that named him "one of the top underpaid players in baseball."

Next time around, he expects to get "the going rate." Will he consider free agency?" I'd be thinking about it. I feel my salary is lower than it should be compared to others."

But Singleton says he's not going to worry about it. "People think we're all just greedy. But when you leave it's not going with you," he said, looking up into the sunshine.

And people think that major league ballplayers don't get tongue-tied around their idols, as Singleton did around Jackie Robinson years ago. Or that they don't appreciate the little things.

Once this spring, Singleton let a ball drop before him in right field. It was a rainy night and the Orioles were irretreviably behind. "As I came back to the dugout, a fan yelled, 'You bum, go after it," Singleton said.

When he returned to the dugout after the next inning, he heard a familiar voice. "You know, you're right," the fan said. 'We're going to need to have you around."

"That was nice," Singleton said.