When the players return to the ball parks, will the fans follow?

In the only precedent we have -- the 13-day strike in 1972 -- many fans apparently thought they could get along without the game. For the remainder of that season the major league teams averaged almost 1,000 spectators a game fewer than they had in 1971 (National League clubs went down 1,000; the American League went up slightly).

This spring, before the strike, both leagues were on their way to record-breaking attendance figures. The majors were averaging 21,000 a game, up from last year's 20,400 and topping the 1979 record of 20,700.

The National League was down slightly, from 21,700 in 1980 to 21,131.

But the American League was overjoyed over the best crowds it had ever had and the prospect of overtaking the hated Nationals as the best draw in baseball. The AL was averaging 20,931 a game, a full 14 percent better than last year's 19,200.

Will the National League be tempted to institute the designated hitter rule in an attempt to jack up attendance after the strike?

The American League did in 1973, hoping that by injecting more offense into its game it would hype the gate. Fans love hitting, the conventional wisdom went; they stay away from good pitching.

Still, the crowds thronging to see the Dodgers' sensational rookie, Fernando Valenzuela, before the strike this spring would seem to indicate otherwise. Before doing anything rash, the National League would be wise to look at the record:

In 1921 Babe Ruth slugged a record 59 home runs.American League attendance was down 800 a game. In 1922 Rogers Hornsby became the first modern National Leaguer to hit .400 League attendance was off 100 a game.

In 1946 Bob Feller broke Rube Waddell's strikeout mark. American League crowds increased 6,100 a game. In 1965 Sandy Koufax broke Feller's mark. National League attendance jumped 2,700 a game. In 1973 Nolan Ryan broke Koufax's mark, and the AL drew another 1,500 a game.

When Koufax was in his prime, one out of 10 persons who paid to see a National League game went to see him pitch. That's 1.5 million customers. Koufax retired after the 1966 season. In 1967 National League attendance dropped more than 2 million.

In 1976 Mark Fidrych had a meteoric rookie year for the Detroit Tigers, packing in the crowds whereever he pitched. This year Valenzuela got off to a sensational start with seven straight victories. He also was averaging close to 50,000 in attendance a game.

In 1968, the best pitching (and worst hitting) year of all time, the Tigers estimated that Denny McLain was worth 35,000 extra customers every time he pitched. Finally, when McLain went for his 30th victory, NBC scored its highest rating that season.

That October, television captured the ultimate match up -- McLain versus Bob Gibson in the World Series -- and broke the all-time sports viewing record. The game was tuned in by a million homes more than had set the old record, the Koufax-Whitey Ford 1-0 duel in the 1963 Series.

That year, 1968, makes an interesting study. The year before, four teams had fought down to the last weekend in the American League pennant race. Then, in '68, batting averages sank to the lowest level in history: Carl Yastrzemski led the league with .301, and pitchers dominated as never before or since. There was no pennant race at all, so the fans should have stayed away by the millions, right? Wrong. The American League lost exactly 34 a game.

Officials later instituted the DH, but they had completely misread this history.

War and economically hard times traditionally have sent baseball attendance plunging. World War I, for example, dealt a body blow to baseball. It lost more than half its customers in the troubled summer of 1918, drawing an average of fewer than 2,500 a game.

As soon as the war was over, baseball fans flocked back to the parks. In 1920 attendance was triple the war-time low, zooming to more than 7,000 a game for the first time. Historians give Babe Ruth's home runs credit, but evidence is compelling that the Babe's dramatic appearance was a coincidence. It was peace and prosperity that brought out ticket buyers, not Ruth.

The Depression and World War II also kept fans at home. However, after V-E Day, with prosperity at a new high, the public released its pent-up energies with a stampede to the baseball parks. The sport set an attendance record, almost 9,000 a game, in 1945 even though most of its stars still were in military uniform. In 1946, attendance shot up to the unheard-of height of more than 14,000, helped by a fine National League pennant race and the first playoff in big league history.

In 1948, with Bill Veeck merrily leading the band in Cleveland, the American League staged a furious three-way race, climaxed by its first playoff ever, and attendance hit the 18,000-a-game mark. (Another factor: the thousands of blacks who followed Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby into the big league parks.)

But two years later the Korean War Was on and baseball attendance slumped sharply, to under 13,000 by 1952. With peace, it rebounded, although it didn't reach the delirious post-World War II heights, perhaps because of television, which extends actual audience to almost immeasurable horizons.

Beginning about 1965 America went into a psychological tailspin, with a war overseas and rioting in the cities and on the campuses. The amazing thing is not that baseball attendance declined, but that it declined so little. By the Vietnam War's end in 1973, baseball still was averaging about 14,000 a game, more than 1,000 better than at the depths of the Korean War.

With peace, attendance climbed quickly back to the 15,500 level where it had been before the war. It reached a plateau in the recession of 1974, then made a dizzying climb, beginning in 1976, to 16,000, then 17,000, then to more than 19,000 in 1978 and more than 20,700 in 1979. The slight setback to 20,400 last year was perhaps a reflection of the nation's business troubles.

What role has the American League DH played in the climb? American League attendance did increase in 1974, the second year of the DH, from about 11,000 a game to almost 14,000, but this likely was as much a result of the truce in Vietnam as the advent of the DH.

What baseball needs is not poorer pitching. It is peace and prosperity.