The Dixie Association, by Donald Hays. New York: Simon & Schuster. 384 pp. $ 16.95.
''Baseball is the misfit's game,'' reflects Hog Durham, ex-con, first baseman , slugger, and hero of this very funny first novel.
Hog has certainly found himself on a team made up of misfits. In prison for sticking up a liquor store, Hog is released into the custody of Lefty Marks, manager of the Arkansas Reds, a ragtag assortment if ever there was one. Assessing this group of has-beens and young hopefuls (whose names include Julius Common Deer, Rainbow Smith, and Bullet Bob Turner), Hog observes, ''Most of us were flakes of one kind or another and some of us were old flakes, persistent flakes, thirty- and forty-year-old flakes that had turned their backs on almost everything but baseball and flakery.''
This is Hog's last chance to go straight. As he leaves prison he realizes, ''It wasn't jubilation I felt, or anything like it, but a doubt that fluttered in my belly until it came within a moth's breath of being fear. Serving time doesn't make you fit to do anything but serve some more.'' Yet Lefty Marks has given him ''a chance to make a living playing ball, which is easier than stealing . . . and sometimes - when the wind's right and your blood's jumping and you got your eye on a hard one coming in fast - almost as exciting.''
Lefty's nickname is derived from his handicap: He has one arm. As Hog says, ''You had to admire him for having been the only one-armed man ever to play in the big leagues.'' The nickname could also indicate his politics. Fired from his teaching job ostensibly for incompetence but actually for espousing liberal causes, Lefty sued the college and won, and with the money he started a farmers' cooperative - to some people a sure sign he's a communist.
The Columbia County Cooperative provides the finales at the Arkansas Reds' home games, where no admission is charged (''Lefty wasn't the first person who figured out that the secret to getting by in the minors is to get people into the park even if you have to let them in free'') and the players themselves sell the hot dogs and beverages. When each game ends, a flatbed truck from the farmers' cooperative pulls up and vegetables are given away.
Hog speaks of ''the slow, graceful unfolding of this American game,'' a description that can be applied to this novel as it leisurely follows the Reds through the South during a season in which Hog will struggle not to fall in love (''The most dangerous thing you can do is to care''), two real communists from Cuba, a pitcher named Genghis Muhammad Jr., and a woman will be added to the team, a bank robbery from Hog's past will return to haunt him, and most of all, baseball will be played.
Despite its good-old-boy raunchiness, ''The Dixie Association'' is somehow endearingly innocent, as romantic as it is hilarious, its hero part of the long tradition of loners confronting a hostile world - and winning.