When a strike neared, Bowie Kuhn always pulled his head inside his shell. Peter Ueberroth sticks out his neck.

Kuhn worked behind the scenes. Ueberroth steals the scenes. Kuhn said "no comment" and watched it all on TV. Ueberroth is on every network with his multiheaded peace plan. Kuhn wouldn't use the power he had. Ueberroth pretends to powers nobody thinks he's got. Kuhn played Clark Kent. Ueberroth looks for a phone booth.

On the heels of the ultimate labor passivist, baseball now has the epitome of a high-minded activist commissioner. Have we gone from Coolidge to Kennedy?

Kuhn, who angered no one except the fans, was beheaded anyway -- the 1981 strike tarnishing his whole reign as commissioner. Ueberroth, who has angered everyone except the fans, runs the risk of marching to history's guillotine, accused of being a meddler, because he had the gumption to talk straight.

For years fans pleaded with Kuhn to take an independent position on labor issues. "Be our voice. Blow the whistle on both sides. Tell us what's fair, so we can exert pressure," they begged.

That's what Ueberroth has done. Whether it will work better than what Kuhn called his "good ear of the game" approach was much in doubt last night as negotiators tried to avert a strike, which would start with today's games.

If baseball has a long stoppage, Peter Pompous will be the perfect scapegoat for both sides. In baseball, the sign on the commissioner's desk should read, "The blame stops here."

If baseball gets a settlement or short strike, don't expect to hear Don Fehr or Lee MacPhail singing the praises of Ueberroth. Even before yesterday's negotiations, the owners had distanced themselves from Ueberroth's compromises, while union patriarch Marvin Miller was muttering about the muddy waters caused by an "amateur mediator." So far, Ueberroth has angered both sides. Good for him.

The Ueberroth Plan, toward which both sides have already veered though they wouldn't admit it, isn't perfect. But it's more than good enough.

Ueberroth's logic has blown a hole in three basic ownership fallacies. He's also punctured one of the union's pet double standards.

First, Ueberroth has asked owners to drop any form of salary cap. He's a free market man and thinks baseball can continue to flourish that way. It's a case of "If it ain't broke . . . "

Last night, owners were still determined to link salary increases to pension benefits. That's just another name for a kind of salary cap. What else do you call it when someone gives with one hand but takes back with the other?

Second, Ueberroth told the owners to stop trying to get rollbacks in free agency. The owners have complied.

Finally, Ueberroth's proposal said the owners should stop asking (other than in this agreement) for the players to solve their financial problems. This is philosophy and rhetoric, not cash. But it's important. The owners must admit that the game's red ink is all their fault, that the union has never done anything wrong and that the owners need to restructure their side of the game properly.

In the bottom half of the inning, Ueberroth has told the players that they can't realistically have both free agency and the current system of arbitration. It amounts to an economic whiplash that owners can't, at least at present, escape.

For years, the union has refused to accept the reality that baseball is an oligopoly. In most businesses, you try to drive your competition out of existance. In baseball, every team has to be fairly strong so the whole league can survive.

The players want to pretend that baseball is a standard total-competition marketplace when, in fact, it isn't. Baseball has a right to create a system in which weak teams can compete. If that impinges on old-fashioned free enterprise theory, then so be it. The Yankees can't exist without the Mariners. So, protect the Mariners.

Ueberroth has suggested two fairly mild changes in arbitration procedure. A player isn't eligible until he's played three years rather than two. And an arbitrator can't increase any salary more than 100 percent, except for a "superstar" category yet to be defined.

Will this cost the players millions of dollars? Sure. Does it cost players some of their rights? Yes?

Is it necessary? Probably.

Why? Because, in effect, it will help poorer teams be more competitive.

Arbitration was created in 1974, before the players were freed from the reserve clause. Fine-tuning is needed.

Late last night, the union still treated this idea as though it were the plague, not a panacea.

Four years ago, if Kuhn had been courageous and candid, if he had told the public that the owners wanted a strike and were forcing it, could the game's moguls have pulled off such a monumental stupidity?

Last Thursday, Ueberroth ended the era of the toothless commissionership. He smacked the men who hired him and pay him. And not for the first time. It's a take-charge act that worked well as Olympic boss when he had real power.

Now, he's just a man running a bluff. In a pinch, he probably can't do anything. His hole cards are his honesty and his possession of the bully pulpit.

Ueberroth's record is imperfect. His drug-testing plan was pious p.r. and smacked of unconstitutionality. It has not accomplished anything yet, except to distract negotiators. The aroma of national politics and image-manicuring always seems to surround the man.

Nonetheless, the plan he's proposed is fair. One of life's hardest phrases to master is, "That's good enough."

As of sundown last night, the wisdom of baseball's new commissioner still managed to escape the game's stubborn owners and players, both locked in the macho poses they've adopted for years.

If, by sunrise, the players and owners have not seen the light, then perhaps it is time for others to help them open their eyes.

If 220 million Americans tell 26 rich owners and 650 wealthy players that they think the Ueberroth Plan is good enough, can their will be thwarted long?