Lou Piniella remembers arguing past midnight with Thurman Munson at Bobby Murcer’s apartment in Chicago a couple nights before the crash—the Yankees were in town playing the White Sox; Murcer had just been traded from the Cubs back to the Yankees—arguing about hitting until Murcer couldn’t stand it anymore, took himself to bed at about 2:00 a.m. Piniella was poolside at his house when George called. I was mad, says Piniella, now the manager of the Seattle Mariners, sitting before an ashtray of stubbed cigarettes in the visitor’s clubhouse of Fenway before a game against the Red Sox. He doodles on a piece of paper, drawing stanzas without notes. Over and over. I was mad, he says. I’m still mad.

Bobby Murcer, the last player to see Thurman Munson alive, remembers standing at the end of a runway with his wife and kids at a suburban airport north of Chicago where Thurman Munson was keeping his jet, declining his invitation to come to Canton, watching Thurman Munson barrel down the runway in this most powerful machine, then disappearing in the dark. Remembers him up there in all that night, afraid for the man.

And George Steinbrenner remembers it today in his Tampa office, surrounded by the curios of a sixty-nine-year life, some signed footballs, some framed photographs. He dyes his hair to hide the gray, but seems immortal. The living embodiment of the Yankees past and present. He has the longest desk I’ve ever seen.

He remembers clearly when Thurman came to visit his office at Yankee Stadium, flat-out refused to be captain, said he didn’t want to be a flunky for George, and George finally talked him into it, said it was about mettle, not management. He remembers flying out to Canton at Thurman’s request to see Thurman’s real estate, eating breakfast with the family. And, of course, he remembers the day. He got a call from a friend at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, and at first he didn’t put two and two together, not until the man said, George, I’ve got some bad news. Then it hit him.

I just sat there, says George Steinbrenner now, folding his hands on his lap. Sat paralyzed. Everything about Thurman came flooding back to me—his little mannerisms and the way he played. When George could move his arms again, he picked up the phone and started calling his players. I don’t think the Yankees recovered for a long time afterward, he says. I’m not sure we have yet.

It’s 1999 at Yankee Stadium. A papery light and the good sound of hard things hitting. And yet again, there are new faces, new names: Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, David Cone, Paul O’Neill, Roger Clemens. Luis Sojo jabbering in Spanish, cracking up the Spanish-speaking contingent, Joe Girardi chewing someone out for slacking through warm-ups (“Keep smiling, rook,” he says, “keep smiling all the way back to Tampa”), Hideki Irabu in midstretch, a big man from Japan, messing with a blade of grass, lost in some reverie, like a stunned angel fallen from the heavens, contemplating his next move.

It’s a team that last year came as near to perfection as any team in history, with a 125-50 record. If the 1977 Yankees, with their itinerant stars, were the first truly modern baseball club, then the 1998 Yankees were the first modern team to play ball like a club of yore, with no great standout, no uncontainable ego. A devouring organism, they just won.

The problem with a year like 1998 is a year like 1999: a great team playing great sometimes and looking anemic at other times. But always haunted: Paul O’Neill haunted by the 1998 Paul O’Neill; Jorge Pasada haunted by the 1998 Jorge Posada. And then every Yankee haunted by every other Yankee who’s come before. Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle. To this day, even though the clubhouse is a packed place—Bernie Williams is jammed in one corner with his Gibson guitar and crates of fan mail; big Roger Clemens is jammed next to O’Neill, no small man himself—Thurman Munson’s locker remains empty. It stands near Derek Jeter’s, on the far left side of the blue-carpeted clubhouse, near the training room, a tiny number 15 stenciled above it.

When I ask Jeter if he remembers anything about Thurman Munson, he smiles, looks over his shoulder at the empty locker, and says, Not really. He was a bit before my time. Jeter is twenty-five, which would make him a Winfield-era Yankee fan. But when I ask Jeter if anyone ever uses it, even to stow a pair of cleats or extra bats or something, he looks at me quizzically and says, Uh, no, it’s like his locker, man. It still belongs to him.

In Jorge Posada’s locker, among knickknacks that include a crucifix and a San Miguel pendant, he’s got a picture of Thurman Munson, in full armor, accompanied by a quote from a 1975 newspaper article: Look, I like hitting fourth and I like the good batting average, says Thurman Munson. But what I do every day behind home plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people and so many more aspects of the game.

It’s a sentiment that the twenty-seven years old Posada takes to heart. And it’s not just Posada. Sandy Alomar Jr., the catcher for the Cleveland Indians, wears number 15 on his uniform in memory of the man he calls his favorite player, a connection he was proud to acknowledge even when the Indians met the Yankees for the American League pennant last year. He says it brings him luck.

I try to imagine guys like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada five, ten, fifteen years from now. Even as they’ve really just begun to play, they will stare down the ends of their careers, on their way to the Hall of Fame or a sad Miller Lite commercial or restaurant ownership. You play hard, you hoard your memories, and then suddenly you can’t see the ball or you get thrown out at second on what used to be a stand-up double, you separate a shoulder that won’t heal or just miss your wife and children, and then you go home to Kalamazoo or Wichita or Canton, Ohio. And then who are you, anyway? Just another stiff who played ball.

Except you get the second half of your life. You get to try and be a man.

The house that Thurman Munson built first appears in a vision. One day Thurman Munson and his wife are driving around the suburbs of New Jersey when they turn a corner. Thurman Munson hits his breaks and says, Whoa, I have to live in that house! I’m serious, Diana, that’s my dream house! It speaks to some ideal, something orderly, regal, and Germanic in him, a life beyond baseball, an afterlife, and he sheepishly rings the doorbell and does something he never does. I play catcher for the New York Yankees, he says, and I have to live in this house. I mean, not now … I just want the plans. I promise you I won’t build this house in New Jersey. This will be the only one of its kind in New Jersey. I’d build it in Canton, Ohio. This house. In Canton.

The woman eyes his suspiciously, takes his name and number, says her husband will call him. He figures that’s the end of that. But the husband calls. Invites the Munsons for dinner. By then Thurman Munson has composed himself, and the man eventually gives him the plans. And then it really begins—years of Sisyphean work. First they have to find the perfect piece of land, which takes forever. Then, instead of hiring a contractor, Thurman Munson subs out the job, picks everything right down to the light fixtures himself. He gets stone for the fireplace from New Jersey; stone for the rec room from Alaska; stone for the living room from Arizona. He wants crown moldings in all the rooms. He wants a lot of oak and high-gloss and hand-carved cabinets. In the rec room, a big walk-down bar … then, no, wait a minute, not a big bar, a small bar, and more room to play with the kids. Pillows on the floor to listen to Neil Diamond on the headphones.

He flies in on off days during the season to check how things are going. But they’re never going well enough. Thurman Munson rages and bellyaches. He throws tantrums. He has walls torn down and rebuilt. He chews the workers out like Billy Martin all over an ump. Like his own father all over him. The guys start to hide when they know he’s coming. Sure, you want your house to look nice, but this guy’s a maniac. He’s dangerous. He’s Lear. He’s Kurtz. He’s a dick.

And the stones keep coming. From Hawaii, Georgia, Colorado …

Then finally it’s done. It’s 1978. Thurman Munson’s father, the truck driver, has abandoned his mother, moved to the desert, is working in a parking lot in Arizona, a dark shadow in a shack somewhere, and Thurman Munson moves his own family into the house that Thurman Munson built.

Something lifts off his shoulders then—after all the tumult, after the two World Series victories, after his body has begun to fail, after the constant rippings in the press. And yet, he’s also become more inward and circumspect. He doesn’t hang out with Goose and Nettles and Catfish for a few pops after games anymore. No, many nights, nights in the middle of a home stand, even, he goes straight to Teterboro Airport, where he keeps his plane, and flies back to Diana and the kids, follows the lights of the Pennsylvania turnpike, the towns of Lancaster and Altoona and Clarion flashing below and the stars flashing above, until Canton appears like a bunch of candles. Sometimes he’s home by midnight.

And here’s the odd thing now: there’s always someone in the house when he comes walking through the door. There’s Thurman Munson and Thurman Munson’s wife and Thurman Munson’s kids, but there is something else, too. A part of himself in this house. A presence, a feeling around the edge of who he is that waits for a moment to penetrate, to prick his consciousness, to change him once, forever.

Until it does: one summer evening on a day with no game when Thurman Munson has had three home-cooked meals and the family has finished dinner and the kids are playing. Diana is in the kitchen tidying, washing dishes. Thurman Munson is wearing a blue-and-white-checked shirt and gray slacks. He rolls up his sleeves, lights a cigar, goes out back, and lounges in a lawn chair, feet up on the brick wall. He’s never one to relax, always has a yellow legal pad nearby, running numbers for some real estate deal. But it’s that quiet time of evening, a few birds softly chirping in the maples, blue shadows falling over the backyard, the sweet scent of tobacco. Thurman Munson just gazes intently at the sparklers of lights in the trees, a wraith of smoke around him.

Diana glances out the kitchen window and sees his big, blue-and-white-checked back, sees Thurman Munson shaking his head. A little while later she looks out the window and again he’s shaking his head. And then again, until she can’t stand it any longer, and she barges out there and says, What are you looking at? Why are you shaking your head? Thurman Munson doesn’t seem to know what to say, but when he looks at her, his eyes are all lit up and he’s crying. It’s one of the only times she’s ever seen him cry.

I just never thought any of this would be possible, he says. And that’s it. For one brief moment, the man he is and the man he wants to be meet on that back lawn, become one thing, and then it just overwhelms him.

After the crash, the psychiatrist told Diana to get rid of her husband’s clothes quickly or it would just get harder and harder. So that’s what she did, she got rid of Thurman Munson’s clothes, the hunting vest and bell-bottom pants, the bad hats and suits and coats. It took an afternoon, going through his entire wardrobe. Sometimes it made her laugh—to imagine him again. Sometimes it was harder than that. And she got rid of almost everything.

But that blue-and-white-checked shirt—she kept that.

I go to Catfish Hunter’s farm in Hertford, North Carolina, not far from Outer Banks, on a swampy summer night. He owns more than a thousand acres, grows cotton, peanuts, corn, and beans, and after retiring at the age of thirty-three, this is where he came. Always knew he was going to come back here after baseball, just thought his daddy would be here, too. But he died a week before Thurman Munson. The darkest weeks of Catfish’s life. Out in the fields, living with the ghost of his father, sometimes something would pop into his mind and he would remember Thurman.

He could make a $500 suit look like $150, says Catfish now, then he smiles. In the past year, the fifty-three-year old former pitcher has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Started as a tingle in his right hand when he was signing autographs down at Woodard’s Pharmacy for the Lions Club in the spring, then he had to use two hands to turn the ignition on his pickup when he went dove hunting, by Halloween knew something was seriously wrong, and now his arms hang limply at his sides. Seems farcical and cruel. The same arm that won 224 games, that helped win five World Series rings, that put him in the Hall of Fame, lies dead next to him. Wife and kids and brothers and buddies help feed him, take him to the pee pot. And then no telling what the disease will do next.

If Thurman had played five more years, he’d own half the Yankees, says Catfish. Everybody liked the guy. The whites, the blacks, the Hispanics. We sit on a swing by the side of the house, the fields stretching behind us, family and friends out on the front lawn watching Taylor, the four-year-old grandchild, bash plastic baseballs with a plastic bat. A fly buzzes Catfish, but he can’t lift his arms to waive it away. Even if he could, I’m not sure he would now. Remembering Thurman Munson keeps bringing Catfish back to his father, the proximity of their deaths, a double blow with which he still hasn’t really come to terms. And his own condition—a thing suddenly hurtling him nearer to the end.

Every time I came home from playing ball, says Catfish, the first thing I always did was go over and see my dad. He lived seeing distance from here. My wife said, You think more of your daddy than you do of me. And every day that we went hunting, my wife would fix us bologna-and-cheese or ham-and-cheese sandwiches and every day I ate two and he ate one. When Thurman died, his uniform was still hanging in his locker. I just thought he was going to come back. Every time I walked in the clubhouse, I thought he was coming back.

His eyes well with tears, he seems to look out over the road, reaching for his daddy again or Thurman Munson, then shakes his head once. Remembers a story: pitching to Dave Kingman in the All-Star Game, the same Dave Kingman who hit a Catfish change-up in a spring training game for a home run the length of two fields, and here he is again, and here is Thurman Munson calling for a change-up again. Catfish shakes it off and Thurman Munson trundles to the mound, says, Gotta be shitting me, won’t throw the change-up. Millions of people watching tonight that’d love to see him hit that long ball. Oh, let him hit it as long as he can! Munson goes back, flashes the change-up, Catfish throws a fastball and pops him up. When he goes to the dugout, Thurman Munson shakes his head. Gotta be shitting me, he says, won’t throw the change-up, then walks away.

Yes, Thurman Munson might put you on like that, but Catfish says he only saw him truly angry once. Saw the napalm Thurman Munson, the one that sought to undo the other Thurman Munsons. Some corporate sponsor gives Munson and Catfish a white Cadillac to drive around for the summer, and the two cruise everywhere in it. One night after a game, they walk out and see the front windshield is smashed, all these glass spiderwebs running helter-skelter. Catfish isn’t happy, but Thurman Munson starts cussing and ranting and raving. He says, I’m gonna kill whatever sons of bitches did this! He goes berserk. Stalks toward the Caddy, opens the trunk, and suddenly pulls out a .44 Magnum revolver.

Catfish is standing in front of the Caddy, and when he sees Thurman Munson with that .44, his eyes nearly pop out of his head. He goes, Holy shit, Thurman, you got a gun!

I’m going to kill them, says Munson.

Kill who? says Catfish.

Kill whoever it is I see on the other side of that fence.

Don’t load that gun, says Catfish.

Yes, I am, says Thurman Munson. And he does—then raises it, points it at shadows moving behind the fence, and fires. Crack! Shit! yells Catfish.

Thurman Munson fires at the shadows again, and again—Crack! Crack! Without thinking, Catfish rushes him, gets his own powerful paws on the Magnum, and wrestles it away. Please, God, don’t let someone be hit, prays Catfish out loud, because now my fingerprints are all over the damn thing.

I didn’t hit anybody, says Thurman Munson. But I’m gonna run them over.

And that’s what he tries to do. He gets in the car and barrels through the parking lot, people leaping out of the way.

God damn, you’re crazy, says Catfish. Even today, Catfish can’t figure it out. Could have ended up killing someone, thrown in prison. The man he says he loves actually shot at those shadows.

It’s getting on toward evening now. When it’s time for dinner, Catfish’s wife comes and fetches us. Without my knowing it, I have been invited to stay. Because of Thurman Munson. And so I stand with Catfish Hunter and his family before a table full of food—lobster, a pan of warm corn bread, mashed potatoes, and slaw—on a June night in North Carolina, cicadas droning, heat releasing from the earth. Twenty of us gathered in a circle—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters—and everyone joins hands. Even Catfish, though he can’t raise his at all. His wife takes his right hand and, following her lead, I take his left. A heavy, bearlike thing, warm and leathery and still callused from farming. The hand of a man. I bow my head with all of them. And we pray.

I give you a boy and a man, a son and a father—and then the father’s father. Together for the first time, at Thurman Munson’s funeral. The son wears a miniature version of the Yankee uniform that his father wore. The father lies in a coffin. And his father, the truck driver, has magically appeared from Arizona, sporting a straw sombrero. For a thin, hard man, he has a large nose.

It’s the biggest funeral Canton has seen since the death of President McKinley, thousands gathering at the orange-brick civic center, hundreds more lining the route as the hearse drives to the cemetery. Thurman Munson’s old golf buddy, a pro, waits on a knoll at the local course and doffs his cap when Thurman Munson passes. All the Yankees are there. Bobby Murcer and Lou Piniella deliver the eulogy. And that night Murcer, who’s not penciled into the starting lineup, asks to play, knocks in five runs, including a two-run single to win the game, and limps from the field held up by Lou Piniella, then gives his bat to Diana Munson. A bat kept today somewhere in the house that Thurman Munson built.

When the hearse arrives, Thurman Munson is wheeled into a mausoleum, followed by his family: Diana, the kids, Diana’s mother, Pauline, and Diana’s father, Tote, who over the years has become Thurman Munson’s best friend. The old man, the truck driver, stands apart. When he’s asked by a stranger how long it’s been since he last saw his son, he says, Quite a while. Thurman never found himself, he says.

Then he does something disturbing. The truck driver holds an impromptu press conference, not more than fifty feet from Thurman Munson’s coffin, telling a group of reporters that his boy was never a great ballplayer, that it was really him, Darrell Munson, who was the talent, just didn’t get the break. Later, he approaches the coffin and, according to Diana, addresses his son one last time, says something like: You always thought you were too big for this world. Well, look who’s still standing, you son of a bitch.

That’s when Tote can’t stand it anymore. He rises from his seat, meaning to tear him limb from limb. The police jump in and the old man, Darrell, is escorted from the cemetery, vanishes again, back to the desert, back to a shadow in a shack somewhere.

And what happens to the son? Michael Munson is graced and doomed by his own name. He grows up and wants to play baseball, builds a batting cage in the backyard. As a sophomore in high school he can’t hit breaking balls or sliders, but he busts his ass until he can. He wills himself to hit. And then he does. He goes to Kent State, his father’s alma mater, and stars as an outfielder. In 1995, the Yankees sign him to their rookie league, switch him to catcher. Must think it’s in the genes.

He goes over to the Giants and then winds up in Arizona, in the desert. He wakes at dawn, gets to the ballpark an hour and a half before everyone else. He’s pale-skinned and freckled, has bright, clear eyes, the body of his father. He puts on his uniform and lifts, then runs and stretches. His arms bear bruises, his knees feel like grapefruits, the back of his neck is sun-scorched.

And every day he plays in the shadow of his father. He won’t let himself be outhustled, outplayed, outthought, if he can help it. Because now when he goes back and watches those old Yankee games, he can see what his dad was thinking, how he called a game, how his quick release came from throwing right where he caught the ball, how he had as many as ten different throwing motions depending on the ailment of the day, how he did a hundred little things to win. He can see his dad jabbering incessantly and smacking his mitt on Guidry’s shoulder after a win. He can see how his teammates looked up to him. And it’s something like love. He sits and watches his dad crouch behind the plate, in a tight situation, maybe bases loaded and the Yankees up by a run, maybe Goose on the mound, the season on the line, and Thurman Munson, the heart and soul of those seventies teams, doesn’t even give a signal. Just waves like, Bring it on, sucker. Trust me.

So I give you a boy—me—and a pack of boys and neighborhoods of boys who have grown into men. We are now stockbrokers and real estate agents, computer consultants and a steel guitarist for a country-western band. Some of the best of us are gone, buried in our hometown cemetery, and the others are fathers or fathers to be or have dreams of kids. My brothers are all lawyers, and I live in a house that I own with a woman who is going to be my wife.

I did cry the day Thurman Munson died. I’m glad to admit it. And I cried the night I left Catfish Hunter in North Carolina, driving straight into a huge orange moon. I hadn’t cried like that in years, but I was thinking about them—and myself, too—and I just did.

What happens when your hero suddenly stands up from behind home plate, crosses some fold in time, and vanishes into thin air? You go after him.

So I give you Thurman Munson, rounding third in the half-light of the ninth inning and gently combing out the hair of his daughters. I give you Thurman Munson, flying over America, looking down at the same roads his father drives, and returning home to his wife, speaking the words Ich liebe dich. I give you Thurman Munson shooting at shadows and leaping into the arms of his teammates. I give you Thurman Munson beaned in the head and sleeping next to his son again.

I give you the man on his own two feet.

Michael Paterniti is the author of The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, which was released this week. Two days ago, GQ published a list of Paterniti’s best long reads for the magazine. You can find him on Twitter, @MikePaterniti.

The Stacks is Deadspin’s living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter’s Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter,@DeadspinStacks, or email us at thestacks@deadspin.com.