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With all due respect to Aaron, Musial, and even Ruth, Willie Mays was the greatest all-around player baseball has ever seen. The epitome of the “five tool” threat—he could run, throw, field and hit for average and with astonishing power—Mays bedeviled opponents and thrilled fans for more than two decades.
Legends vary about who first bestowed the famous nickname, the “Say Hey Kid,” on Mays when he was still a young player in New York. By the time he was playing in San Francisco, after the Giants’ move west in the late Fifties, it was clear that, whatever he was called, Mays was on track to challenge the most hallowed records in the game. As it happened, he retired with some mind-boggling numbers: 660 home runs (fourth all-time—although for some fans who don’t credit scandal-plagued Barry Bonds’ numbers, he’s still third behind Aaron and Ruth); 3,283 hits (11th all-time); a .300 batting average; 1,903 RBIs (10th all-time); a record-tying 24 All-Star appearances . . . and on and on. (Trivia note: Mays is Barry Bonds’s godfather.)
Here, six decades after his 1951 major league debut, LIFE.com offers a gallery of photos of Willie Mays by LIFE photographers from the ’50s and ’60s—an era when the man’s preternatural talent and infectious joy on the diamond provided millions with one more giant reason to love the game.