George Steinbrenner has been through some hard times lately, what with unidentified attackers in an elevator and millionaire players who can't bunt in the World Series. But nothing's ever been as bad as what happened to him here on Tuesday night.

The New York Yankee owner got mugged by his own fans. All 35,458 of them.

What happened at exactly 9:45 p.m. in Yankee Stadium, triggered by a Ruthian home run by Reggie Jackson of the California Angels, may be unique in the history of American sports.

An owner who has poured millions of dollars into giving his city a winning team--five division flags and four Series visits in the last six years--was vilified with an unprintable epithet for two minutes. The crowd in his own park stood and, in almost unanimous unison, chanted its gut-level disgust.

Commenting on the chanting, Steinbrenner was quoted in the New York Daily News as saying: " . . . I thought it was a cheap shot after all the cheers we've given them."

What this "vox populi" seemed to say was that, contrary to Steinbrenner's view, winning isn't everything.

In fact, winning, done badly enough, might be nothing at all.

Whoever thought such a refreshing notion would find clear and undeniable, if slightly off-color, expression in Yankee Stadium?

Said pitcher Ron Guidry who gave up the Jackson homer, "It (listening to the crowd) was about the only fun I had all night."

How could such a totally unexpected moment come to pass? By what process have even the hardened fans of the Yankees reached their moral sticking point?

After all, Steinbrenner consistently has said that all his hard-ball tactics had but one goal--"to bring New York a winner." Doing it all for the fans, that's why the common man loves me, Steinbrenner has said.

Sure, Steinbrenner has fired his manager eight times, six times in four years. Three times, he rehired those same emasculated managers.

But he won. Don't Americans think that atones for lots of sins?

So what if Steinbrenner's lash finally extended even to the veteran players who had brought him glory with their deeds?

First, he humiliated Reggie Jackson last season as the pair arm-wrestled over a future contract. Then, he berated Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer at a chew-out team meeting in the playoffs. When his Yanks lost four in a row in the Series, he publicly apologized to the city.

In his winter of distemper and spring of colic, Steinbrenner remade the Yankees so that their new image was his. The Yankees let Jackson go without making an offer, then signed free agent Dave Collins. They traded young arms for Ken Griffey.

Out went those on the owner's disfavored list--the salary arbitration winner who fizzled in the Series, Ron Davis; the veteran Bob Watson, who hid his contempt poorly; the latest rookie right-hander who wasn't great enough soon enough, Gene Nelson.

In came Butch Hobson and Roy Smalley, one of their purposes being to light a fire under older players like Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles. With pitchers Doyle Alexander and Shane Rawley also added, the rule of the clubhouse became raw survival of the fittest. No past contribution mattered. Win now.

"I don't know if we have a plan or too many plans, but they're not worth a damn," said Goose Gossage this week, almost the only Yankee with enough seniority and job security to speak. "It's chaos."

All the overfamiliar, annually recurring plot lines in the drama were being repeated, but at an ever-quickening pace, as though a mad projectionist were speeding up a movie until it became comic nonsense.

Yet sad, too, like watching a nervous breakdown danced to a polka.

Finally, on Sunday, Steinbrenner fired his venerable manager, Bob Lemon, for the second time. On Monday, Gene Michael held his return press conference, which Steinbrenner avoided. Coincidentally, Jackson was to return Tuesday.

For Jackson, who was hitting .179 with no extra-base hits, the night was Reggie's Revenge. As Jackson crossed the plate after his long homer, Yankee catcher Rick Cerone says the slugger even had the presence of mind "to give me a wink." Headline writers have, rightly, had a field day with variations on the text: "Look Homeward, Angel."

However, that book title doesn't gets the moment exactly right. Thomas Wolfe just borrowed the line from Milton's "Lycidas." It's the whole couplet (helped along with a few capital letters) that fits perfectly.

"Look Homeward, Angel, Now, and Melt With Ruth . . . "

Though Jackson has only 426 home runs, and the Babe had 714, it may be time to melt their names together, at least in one narrowly defined context. Ruth was greater, of course. What connects them, though, through the generations, is their rare ability to transform team sport into personal theater to a more intense degree than other great players.

Before Tuesday night's game, Jackson put his finger on the entire problem of being a Yankee, or, from a New York fan's viewpoint, rooting for them: "I wouldn't prostitute myself to come back."

Centuries ago, a philosopher wrote, "So marvelous is the power of conscience that it makes us betray, accuse and fight ourselves, and, in the absence of an outside witness, it brings us forward against ourselves."

With his harried maneuvers in the past six months, Steinbrenner seems like a smart, but troubled man who is torturing himself. Even those he has fired and humiliated presumably would not wish that on him.