Henry sank into his chair, stared at the mess that was his Association. The Pioneer-Knickerbocker game lay before him, its participants transformed to their original state -- mere slips of paper. It's all over, he realized miserably, finished. The Universal Baseball Association proprietor left for parts unknown. --

from "The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop." by Robert Coover

Henry Waugh, a man who took his games seriously, certainly would grimace at the collection of "sports" games that take up space on toy store shelves each holiday season. Only the spirit of giving keeps many of these follies from collecting more dust.

Not including the new video marvels, about 40 games are available in area toy stores that are related, however obliquely, to sports. They range in price from $6 to $40.

But even $6 can be misspent if you let the blinking lights blind you. For the cost-conscious toy buyer, we offer a few caveats:

* Just because it says it's computerized doesn't mean it is. Most "computer" games have about as much advanced circuitry as an electric can opener.

* Beware of any game with magnets or, worse, springs. Such crucial parts usually go zipping off under the couch at the slightest provocation and later get sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.

* When manufacturers say a toy is for "ages 8 to adult," they are fibbing through their Christmas stockings. Try to picture a 60-year-old toy company president sprawled on a living room rug Christmas morning playing Lucky Puck Ice Hockey.

* Realism and complexity go hand in hand. If you aren't particular and are willing to sacrifice realism, there are dice-and-scorepad games by the dozen. If you're looking for a little more, you may end up having to use a slide rule. Obviously, you have to balance intelligence against love of sports. Not all "toys" are for kids, and vice versa.

Although video sports games have become more popular this season, traditional board games are still the biggest sellers.

"These are the old standbys. They're still selling at a good pace," said John Grey, a spokesman for Toys 'R' Us, one of the largest area toy retailers. "You've got a lot of customers who can't afford to buy all the electronic and video games, and these offer a nice alternative."

Here is a sampling of the best and the worst St. Nick plans to drag down the chimney this holiday season. Not surprisingly, there are about a dozen games for each sport. Prices quoted are an average at metropolitan retail toy outlets.

Among board games, baseball still is the national pastime, although football is not far behind.

Pete Rose Score Baseball ($6.94), by Illfelder, is typical. Except this one doesn't even have lights to get you to buy it. The object of this charade is to hit the metal ball rolling down the chute into one of the several holes at the top of the board with the big plastic bat swung from the left side. This game doesn't even bother with players. It's basically pinball for pin stripes.

Double Play Baseball, for $4.97 from Lakeside, is nothing more than lots of fancy colored dice and several pieces of cardboard.

In the football category, there is First and Ten, which the manufacturer, Rey Urbano of California, boasts has "all magnetic parts." Need we say more?

Monday Night Football, from Mattel for $13.87, isn't happy enough just boring you like its real-life counterpart. This game actually talks. Please, Howard.

Or maybe a friend would like U-Coach-It Football ($5.94). U play it. U hate it. U take it back.

Few of the basketball games rise much above the tone set by Aqua Antics Basketball, by Tomy. A lone stationary player is submerged in a tank of water to shoot foul shot after foul shot. "The object is to get the ball through the hoop," the box proclaims. "The number of times you get the ball through the hoop determines your score."

Then there are the soccer/hockey games from Cadaco. Actually they're the same game, packaged separately with the players painted differently. The hockey game ($24.97) is more realistic, and even comes with a little plastic Stanley Cup. The teams in the soccer game ($21.97) have only six players, each equipped with one enormous foot.

The electronic games, noisier and more glamorous than their simpler counterparts, are by far the worst, because they are not only unrealistic and impossible to play, but expensive, too.

Tudor's baseball game, the most familiar, is $17.84. Its football game is $14.97. Coleco manufactures a spiffier version of the same football game -- the box is bigger and more colorful, and the teams are identifiable -- for $29.97.

There is no electronic basketball game on the market yet because, as one toy store clerk explained to the tired woman peeking over a pile of packages, "they can't figure out how to get a magnet to bounce."

These games are almost exactly the same as those on the shelves 10 years ago, and, annoyingly, the bugs are still the same, too.

Despite all the trappings, there really isn't much to many of these games. You set all the pieces (lots and lots of pieces) on the metal board, plug it in and watch the players wander out of control all over the loudly vibrating table.

Each play takes minutes, each quarter hours and each game weeks. These games come complete not only with magnets but with springs as well. The box says the game is for kids 8 1/2 years and older, but a 2-year-old could watch the pieces crash into each other. One word of caution, however: "Follow instructions to avoid electric shock."

In the cheaper-is-still-better category, Cadaco All-Star Baseball, after more than 20 years, still is one of the most enjoyable, although slightly unrealistic, games around and is only $5.47.

Like most games, it discounts the notion of pitching or defense, which tends to lead to 18-14 slugfests. Players' fingers begin to smart after a while from striking the spinner, but the game can be played quickly, and Cadaco at least tries for more realism than a pair of dice can provide.

Cadaco's football game (also $5.47) isn't nearly as interesting or popular, but All-American Football gets points for candor, if nothing else. Cadaco doesn't repeat that tired old lie about how this game is for adults, too. This game is for 8-year-olds to teen-agers.

Sports Illustrated, against all odds, still markets its baseball, football and basketball games. They don't vibrate, light up or blow your wall socket. In fact, they don't even talk. The appeal of SI's games lies in their realism. These games are a lot of fun for statistics freaks and cost about $11.

Finally, for the bookie on your Christmas list, we present Stats, a biorhythm sports-predicting system from Ashburn Industries. Stats claims that by fitting your birthday and players' birthdays into a formula, you can accurately compute the results of pro football, baseball, basketball, hockey and tennis games. But who bets on tennis, anyway?

"On any given day," the box proclaims, "this revolutionary new kit helps you predict this year's professional games before they're played."

All this, for only $4.90.