Before free agency liberated professional baseball players in 1976, clearing the way for them to negotiate with the highest bidders for their services, fan loyalty to teams was based largely on familiarity with the daily line-up.

When players began wandering from team to team and there was the disturbing sight of a hometown hero in the uniform of a hated rival, fans' allegiance became rooted instead in the city, community or organization represented by the team.

In that respect, Stamford's old Twilight League had the best of both worlds and among the neighborhood teams to benefit was St. John's of Noroton.

Before the advent of television in the 1950s, area fans got their fill of the national pastime at area diamonds. Games were played Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings at Belltown Field (later called Barrett Field) in Stamford.

Crowds routinely numbered in the thousands. It was a superior brand of baseball played by men who had been on teams at colleges and high schools or those sponsored by the factories where they worked. Many were either on their way up or on their way down from the minor leagues. At least one, Mike Sandlock, went on to a big league career with the Dodgers and Braves.

Fierce neighborhood rivalries developed, not only among teams but among their rabid fans. Among these teams, of course, was the club sponsored by St. John's R.C. Church of Noroton and its pastor, the Rev. James McGuane, who by then was known as "the Connie Mack of Darien."

Sportswriters of the era began to call the Noroton team "the Saints," which made Father McGuane chuckle and comment that he knew better. That's when Moe Magliola and Carter Dodd dubbed them "the Johnnies" on their sports pages.

Leading the team on the field was James "Hap" Holahan, who had been an outstanding center fielder at Yale and then had come home to Darien where he was to coach the high school teams for 27 years. He also was a former Noroton Heights fire chief.

As playing-manager, Holahan fielded a line-up of home-grown stars. Among them were Joe Saverine, a former Georgetown University athlete who later served on Darien's Board of Education; Joe Flaherty, a prominent plumbing contractor; "Red" Phillips, who went on to become a Catholic priest; Albie Scribner, a teacher, Nick Lemone, who experienced stardom in Class A minor leagues; Nick Galbo, Newt Pendleton and Al "Spec" Spiers, a Grade A pitcher.

The Twilight Leaguers were so good, in fact, that an all-star aggregation from their ranks played exhibition games against the St. Louis Cardinals and defeated them once.

Holahan lived and breathed baseball, taking time out only for golf. In fact, county high school golfers still compete annually in a tournament named in his honor.

He was a regular at the Piedmont Club, pontificating for hours on baseball's finer points and explaining that it's a game on inches that make the difference between a home run or an out, a ball or a strike, an umpire's safe or out call.

Twilight League competition became intense. Rivalries were heated. Fans began to bet on their teams. Feeling the pressure to win, team sponsors began to recruit players from out of town and to lure players away from rival clubs, often by offering more pay. Free agency had come to the Twilight League two decades before Curt Flood won his court case and brought it to Major League Baseball.

Yet, Twilight teams like the Johnnies retained a solid core of home-town talent. Notable examples were Joe Yaeger and Scotty Koproski staying with the Holy Names, Lazy Nuro and Mickey Lione remaining Sacred Hearts and Saverine, Holahan, Flaherty and Phillips were always Johnnies.

League games soon were moved to Mitchell Field, an enclosed baseball stadium that had been built in the Shippan section of Stamford as home to the Pioneers, a Class A minor league team managed by Zeke Bonura, former big league slugger. Some of the Twilight League players switched to the Pioneers, fans began to stay home and watch the Yankees on television and, although the Twilight League continued, things were not the same.

While local semi-pro baseball probably peaked with the Johnnies, the sport always had a strong presence in Darien. As far back as 1913, when Bessie Weed Shaw created Garden City, a sort of private park and playground for neighborhood children, a baseball team played on its Post Road grounds, located between Noroton Avenue and what was then Wee Burn Country Club's nine-hole golf course (later to become Renshaw Road and the site of Darien's first high school, now the Town Hall).

There was a strong local team also in the 1930s. In an interview included by Edmund Schmidt in his book on the history of Noroton Heights, George Crain recalled playing on a Darien team and especially remembered a loss to the Meehan's Diner team from Stamford. Cannonball Baker, an area baseball legend at the time, pitched for the winners while Hank Haynes, a local product via Springdale, was on the mound for Darien.

Local baseball took still another turn when Holahan organized a Little League. Games were played at the high school where ropes marked off a diamond in Little League dimensions. A year later, the Calve brothers, Fred and George, gave the Lions Club four and a half acres off Noroton Avenue and an army of volunteers carved out a Little League field there, naming it appropriately in honor of Father McGuane.

Just six years after the first Little League game here, a local all-star team won nine tournament games in a row, including the state championship, to qualify for the World Series in Williamsport, Pa. The Darien boys advanced to the semi-finals there before losing to the eventual champions from Mexico.

The Darien players, with Pat Pepworth as their manager, were Rod Barker, McClean Russell, Gilbert Brooks, Don Craig, Roger Frate, Dennis Lenihan, Joe Lopiano, Jimmy Lynch, David Stoeckle, Joe Miceli, Rodger Myers, Albert Siemering, Bobby Greenwood and Richard Reynolds. A couple of years later, many of the same players were on a team that gained regional honors in Babe Ruth League baseball.

Over a span of several decades, baseball has remained big in Darien.

Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at skicrow@att.net.