Written By: Ben Cosgrove

With all due respect to Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and even Babe 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, including: 660 home runs, 3,283 hits, and a record-tying 24 All-Star appearances.

Here, LIFE.com offers a gallery of photos of Willie Mays by LIFE photographers Loomis Dean, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Ralph Morse 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.

A Loomis Dean photo of 22-year-old Willie Mays at spring training in Arizona in 1954, the year the Giants won the World Series   the sole championship of Mays' long career.

Twenty-two-year-old Willie Mays at spring training in Arizona in 1954, the year the Giants won the World Series—the sole championship of Mays’ long career.

Loomis Dean/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Wlliie Mays, spring training, Arizona, 1954

Loomis Dean/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays signs autographs for fans, 1954.

Willie Mays signed autographs for fans, 1954. “I’m not sure what the hell charisma is, but I get the feeling it’s Willie Mays,” Reds’ slugger Ted “Big Klu” Kluszewski once said.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Wilie Mays, Leo Durocher and Whitey Lockman, 1954

Wilie Mays, Leo Durocher and Whitey Lockman, spring training, 1954

Loomis Dean/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays, San Francisco Giants, 1964

Willie Mays, San Francisco Giants, 1964.

Ralph Morse/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays at home in Harlem with his landlady, Mrs. Ann Goosby.

Willie Mays at home in Harlem with his landlady, Ann Goosby, in 1954. A profile of Mays published that year in LIFE pointed out that Mrs. Goosby “cooks his meals, keeps his clothes clean and generally takes care of” the young star.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays clowns with teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, Monte Irvin

Willie Mays clowned with teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, Monte Irvin. “I’ve got a couple of kids, 6 and 10, but when I take a road trip I’ve got another one on my hands. Willie is 23 years old and he’ll drink maybe seven big sodas and a dozen Cokes in 12 hours.” — Irvin, quoted in the Sept. 13, 1954 edition of LIFE

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays at home in Harlem, 1954

Willie Mays at home, 1954.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays trots in from center field, 1954

Willie Mays trotted in from center field, 1954

Loomis Dean/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays, 1954

Willie Mays in the batting cage, 1954. “God gave Willie the instincts of a ballplayer. All I had to do was add a little practical advice about wearing his pants higher to give the pitchers a smaller strike zone.”—manager Leo Durocher

Loomis Dean/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays, 1954

Willie Mays, 1954.

Loomis Dean/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays and teammates in the dugout, spring training, 1954.

Willie Mays and teammates in the dugout, spring training, 1954.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays, spring training, 1954

Willie Mays, spring training, 1954.

Loomis Dean/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays in the outfield, 1964.

Willie Mays in the outfield, 1964.

Ralph Morse/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Willie Mays was besieged by fans after a game.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

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