For a hundred years, the baseball rule of thumb was that the best umpire was an invisible umpire. If you never noticed the arbiter, then he'd done his job. A conspicuous umpire was, by definition, a bad umpire.

If that is the case, then, in the last two or three seasons, baseball has been seeing and hearing too much from its umpires--especially the umpires in the American League. This summer's umpire controversies, as the men in blue have inflicted several black eyes on themselves, is the culmination of a trend.

This is ironic because, at the same time that the image of silent umpires is becoming endangered, the actual quality of their work is probably improving.

The same managers and players who will tell you--usually off the record--that umpires are becoming too belligerent, too quick and profane of tongue, too eager to precipitate a quarrel, and too willing to carry a grudge, are the same major leaguers who'll tell you that, all in all, the quality of umpiring is slowly getting better.

"We're moving in the right direction. The young umpires--notice I said the young umpires--are almost all real good ones. They hustle and they get better every year," said Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson.

On the other hand, there's considerable feeling, especially in the AL, that, since the umpires won salary and working-condition benefits with their 1980 strike, they've become a bit dizzy from the heady combination of absolute power on the field and the job security of a Supreme Court justice off it.

"Some umpires in this league will carry grudges and they'll nail you. They've got a strong union and they think they can get away with it," said one current AL manager. "They'll call a (bad) strike on your hitter, look at him, then look right in your dugout as if to say, 'What can you do about it?' " he continued. "I think they stuck it to Earl Weaver last year when they knew he was retiring, and they may be doing a job on Billy Martin now."

Few topics are hotter inside big-league dugouts than the debate over whether umpiring is improving or going to the dogs. The recent flap about George Brett's pine-tar bat, in which American League President Lee MacPhail reversed a game-deciding umpires' decision, is just the tip of the '83 iceberg.

This spring, NL ump Joe West was suspended for three days for pushing Atlanta Manager Joe Torre in a postgame argument.

A hearing was held yesterday in New York concerning Yankee Manager Billy Martin's accusation that umpire Dale Ford "is a stone liar."

Umpire Joe Brinkman was quoted, much to his own harm, in the public prints as having said that he would throw Kansas City's Willie Wilson out of any future game in which "Wilson so much as looks at me cross-eyed . . . or even if he doesn't." In essence, Brinkman said he would get Wilson if he could. "Brinkman shouldn't have said it, and I don't think he'll ever do it again," said Dick Butler, AL supervisor of umpires. "I've discussed this with him in the strongest possible terms . . . On the other hand, if this had happened a few years ago, and the same words had been said between those two, one of 'em might have been killed. And I'm not saying which one."

In fact, Brinkman has had a disastrous year. He was the overruled crew chief in the Brett bat case, and a hearing still is pending on charges by Cleveland coach Eddie Napoleon that Brinkman reached out and knocked his hat off during an argument.

Two weeks ago in Chicago, White Sox Manager Tony LaRussa pulled third base out of the ground during an argument and hurled it toward his dugout. He was, of course, ejected, but the umpires did not remove him from the White Sox dugout--despite Baltimore protests--until two innings later. "We're umpires, not security guards," said crew chief Jim Evans. "It's not our job to be searching out and evicting managers . . . After Casey Stengel got ejected, they say he used to crawl back into the dugout, lie on the floor and his team would cover him with towels."

TV replays showed that umpire Ken Kaiser ejected Baltimore's Eddie Murray--an old nemesis--because Murray, without speaking, merely glared at Kaiser from 20 feet away. Minutes later, Kaiser made a dubious, out-of-position call which eventually cost Baltimore the game. The Orioles requested that MacPhail study the situation to see if Kaiser was showing continued bias toward Murray and the Orioles. Kaiser has not worked an Orioles' game since.

The Yankees under Martin, who, like the Orioles under Weaver, had a long history of moanin' and misbehavin', have maintained repeatedly all year that AL umpires are seeking retribution against them for past complaints.

On Sunday in Baltimore, mild-mannered Manager Joe Altobelli was ejected by crew chief Dave Phillips after an argument in which, replays showed, Altobelli showed little outward emotion until Phillips followed him, screamed at him and then precipitated a nose-to-nose beef.

"He (Phillips) said a few things to me," said Altobelli. "I'm not really pleased with what I've heard from umpires the last couple of times I've gone out to argue. It's not fair. They know you can't punch 'em in the nose. They wouldn't say those things to you on the street or in a bar. I don't go in bars, but I walk on the streets and nobody would get away with saying the things to me that I've had umpires say to me this year."

"If you took three words out of the English language, most players and umpires would be mute," said Butler. "People who say that umpires used to walk away from arguments may not be remembering it the way it was. I don't recall Cal Hubbard and umpires of that era ever walking away. In those days, they were all rednecks and you couldn't say anything to 'em."

On the general question of quality, it's probable that the AL is gradually reaching the NL's level of competence. In fact, thanks to the optional inside chest protector, the AL strike zone has gotten lower and smaller--NL style-- which dramatically helps hitters. As for the more visible question of umpire demeanor, Anderson gives the conciliatory view:

"Sure, we've got guys who think they're God Almighty, but, usually, the ones with that much ego are also the best umpires. Bill Klem used to be that way. Right now, Steve Palermo is outstanding, like Paul Runge (in the NL). Sure, he's God. So you leave him alone. Heck, I never even got Runge to talk to me."

Even Anderson, the king of compliments, can't bring himself to praise some of the AL veteran umpires. The man behind the plate in this year's All-Star Game, for instance, is one of the AL's worst ball-strike umpires.

"He's a nice man," said Anderson of the umpire. "But my mother's nice, too. That don't mean I want her pitchin'."