Written By: Bill Syken

Sandy Koufax once said of Willie Mays, “He was probably the best all-around ballplayer when you take everything into consideration. It seemed like that Willie never made a mistake.”

That glowing assessment from the legendary Dodgers pitcher gives you a sense of what fans of the New York Giants lost when the team moved to San Francisco in 1958, taking their 27-year-old star with them. It also tells you why it might have been a big deal when, five seasons later, the Say Hey Kid returned to play in New York for the first time. And not only was he back in the city, but he would once again be patrolling centerfield in the Polo Grounds, which was the former home of the Giants. The Polo Grounds was being used by New York’s new team, the Mets, for two seasons while they waited for their own stadium to be built.

Mays had burnished his legend at the Polo Grounds, winning baseball’s MVP award in 1954 and making perhaps the most famous defensive play in baseball history there, with his seemingly no-look, over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series on a ball hit by Vic Wertz into the stadium’s unusually deep centerfield.

Here’s how LIFE reported on Mays’ return in its June 15, 1962 issue:

“It’s a good feeling,” said Willie Mays, the great centerfielder, coming back to play again in the Polo Grounds. He had been an institution there before the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco almost five years ago. Now the fans came out to cheer both for him and their new home team, the Mets. Doffing his cap, Willie went to work; 3 homers, 6 hits, 6 RBIs in four games, all won by the Giants.

That paragraph, and one photo of Mays acknowledging the fans, was the extent of LIFE’s coverage in the magazine. But the full set of images by Arthur Rickerby is a treasure trove, capturing the spirit of Mays’ return, and occasionally using panoramic photography to do so. This was a moment of appreciation for a beloved figure who was not just one of the game’s all-time greats but who would famously played stickball with the local kids in the streets of Harlem. And Mays was no oldies’ act in 1962. He was still in his prime—three years later, in 1965, he would win his second MVP award.

And while today the returns of sports stars to play their old arenas and stadiums can stir up mixed feelings—in this era of free agency and trade demands, the top players usually leave because they want to—there was none of that here. Willie Mays didn’t leave so much as he was carried away. Thus could fans come to the park with signs that read “Bring Willie Back” and “Mays for Governor” and show nothing but unabashed affection for a returning hero.

Willie Mays left the visitor’s clubhouse to take the field at the Polo Grounds as he returned to his former home stadium to take on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans welcomed Willie Mays in his return to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans welcomed Willie Mays in his return to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

GIANTS RETURN TO POLO GROUNDS

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

GIANTS RETURN TO POLO GROUNDS

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

GIANTS RETURN TO POLO GROUNDS

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays spoke with a New York Mets player during Mays’ return to the Polo Grounds as a member of the San Francisco Giants, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Mets manager Casey Stengel during the Giants-Mets series that brought Willie Mays back to the Polo Grounds for the first time, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans welcomed Willie Mays in his return to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans welcomed Willie Mays in his return to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time as the San Francisco Giants took on the New York Mets, 1962.

Arthur Rickerby/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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