World War I offered teenagers many opportunities to be killed, maimed, or shell shocked. The chance for heroism didn’t preclude the first two options. Jack Cornwell, a fifteen-year-old sailor, became famous by dying bravely, and eighteen-year-old pilot Alan McLeod passed away months after inhaling smoke during a heroic fight and rescue; the fumes may have weakened his lungs and made him susceptible to the influenza that killed him.
There aren’t any household names on this list, although the great violinist Jascha Heifetz may be known to some of you.
1910: MARY PHELPS JACOB, eighteen
While brassieres had existed in various forms, Jacob is often credited with creating the first modern bra in 1910. Dressing for a big night out, the New Yorker ditched her usual corset, a constrictive undergarment that extended from below the breasts to the hips, for something new. Jacob took two silk handkerchiefs, some ribbon and cord, and fashioned a lightweight undergarment far less cumbersome than a corset. Jacob soon started sewing bras for friends and family members and received a patent for her creation in 1914. ALSO: Fanny Brice, eighteen, made her Ziegfeld Follies debut, charming audiences with her comic songs and offbeat characterizations. Barbra Streisand portrayed Brice in 1968’s Funny Girl.
1911: RODRIGUEZ CARPIO, eighteen
Carpio served as a guide and supplied fourteen mules for Hiram Bingham’s famed voyage to the ancient Inca site at Machu Picchu in modern-day Peru. Machu Picchu was built late in the 15th century and abandoned a century later.
1912: JOSEPH KALLUS, seventeen
Artist Rose O’Neill originated the popular Kewpie image, but it was Kallus who sculpted the first bisque (a form of porcelain) dolls. The Borgfeldt Company of New York hired Kallus to sculpt doll images and cast the molds. ALSO: Rayna Kasabova, fifteen, became the first woman to take part in a combat air mission when she dropped propaganda leaflets over what is now Edirne, Turkey, during the First Balkan War. She was a member of the Bulgarian Air Force.
1913: HANNAH SILVERMAN, seventeen
One of the most visible figures in the 1913 silk-worker’s strike in Paterson, New Jersey, Silverman was a seventeen-year-old firebrand who endured three arrests and led more than a thousand of her cohorts on a fifteen-mile march to New York City to generate support for the worker’s cause. Industrial Workers of the World founder Bill Haywood called Silverman the “greatest little IWW woman in America,” and labor leader Helen Gurley Flynn called her “the heroine of this strike. Some 24,000 workers had walked off their jobs, shutting down three hundred silk mills, but the six-month strike ended in defeat for the workers.
1914: ERICH KORNGOLD, seventeen
The Viennese prodigy was just seventeen when he completed the one-act operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta in 1914; they debuted two years later at the National Theatre Munich. Mahler and Richard Strauss called young Korngold a “genius” and Puccini said, “He has so much talent that he could give half of it away and still have enough left for himself.”
1915: ÉMILIENNE MOREAU, seventeen
A great French heroine of World War I, Moreau provided key intelligence and medical aid to Scottish soldiers attempting to liberate the city of Loos from German control. No passive patriot, she tossed grenades to ward off enemy solders and shot two Germans who were advancing on her first-aid station. She received the Croix de Guerre for her heroism.
1916: JACK CORNWELL, sixteen
During the World War I Battle of Jutland, Cornwell remained at his naval post despite a shell splinter in his chest that would kill him. His ship, the HMS Chester, took seventeen hits from 150mm shells launched by German cruisers; fourteen British and eleven German ships would sink in the North Sea near Denmark. Cornwell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest honor for military valor in the face of the enemy. That year the British Boy Scouts adopted the Jack Cornwell Scout Badge and elementary schools celebrated September 30 as Jack Cornwell Day.
1917: JASCHA HEIFETZ, sixteen
Called “the greatest violinist who ever lived” by Itzhak Perlman, Heifetz left mouths agape with his New York, Carnegie Hall debut. “This Russian boy is beyond all possibility of cavil a divinely inspired marvel – the supremest genius of the violin,” wrote one critic. Born in Lithuania, then a part of Russia, Heifetz became an American citizen in 1925 and traveled an estimated two million miles on concert tours. Artists, authors, and other musicians were among his most spellbound admirers. After playing a London concert at age sixteen, Heifetz received a letter from playwright George Bernard Shaw that said, “No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly.”
1918: ALAN McLEOD, eighteen
The youngest Canadian to win the Victoria Cross, McLeod was a bomber pilot who took on eight World War I German Fokker triplane fighters in northern France. He shot down three of the enemy planes and took five bullets before his plane caught fire. McLeod made a crash landing and braved a machine-gun assault while pulling his observer from the burning wreckage of the plane. He dragged his comrade to safety before collapsing from exhaustion and loss of blood. He received the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valor offered by the British and Commonwealth armed forces. Back home in Canada, the war hero contracted influenza and died in November of 1918. It’s possible that smoke inhalation during his heroic fight and rescue had weakened his lungs and made him susceptible to the disease.
1919: Dorothy Smith Cummings, sixteen
A native of Newton Centre, Massachusetts, Smith Cummings began entering archery competitions at age of nine and won the first of seven National Archery Association Women’s titles in 1919. She won again in 1921, 1922, 1924, 1925, 1926 and 1931. Smith Cummings was inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 1974.
I recently read a Wikipedia item about Marlene Bauer, a fifteen year old who was named Associated Press Athlete of the Year, Golfer of the Year, and —here’s what caught my eye — Teenager of the Year for 1949.
I’d never heard of a Teenager of the Year and I don’t know what became of the award. Doesn’t matter. The idea is a good one that can be applied retroactively. I’ll start with the first ten years of the twentieth century today, and then go ten years at a time till I get to a 2010-2016 posting.
1900: MARY MACLANE, nineteen
MacLane, from Butte, Montana, wrote “The Story of Mary MacLane,” a “full and frank” depiction of her life and beliefs that sold nearly 100,000 copies in the first month of its April 1902 publication. The author, called the “Wild Woman of Butte,” shocked many contemporaries with her radical, feminist views. The New York Times called her book the “first of the confessional diaries” in America. ALSO: Euphemia Constable, sixteen, spotted saboteurs setting a dynamite charge on the Third Welland Canal in Ontario, Canada, before the bomb blast knocked her unconscious. She would be the star witness at a trial in which three men were convicted of sabotage … Carl Breer, seventeen, built the Breer Steam Runabout at his father’s machine shop in Los Angeles.
1901: PABLO PICASSO, nineteen
Picasso already bore the mark of genius when he gave the first major exhibition of his work at a gallery in Paris. Robert Pincus wrote that by 1901, Picasso “had created drawings, paintings and sculptures that would earn him an enduring place in art history, even if he had died then and there.” Among his teenage works: Yo Picasso and The Absinthe Drinker. ALSO: Ivor Evans, fourteen, was one of five Australians awarded a prize for designing the nation’s flag.
1902: CHARLOTTE HAWKINS, nineteen
In the early days of the 20th century, most African American schools prepared students for non-academic jobs such as carpentry, printing, and farming. Hawkins’ school, the Alice Freeman Palmer Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, started with a similar curriculum but expanded to include drama, music, art, literature, and more. In one of the most repressive eras for African Americans, Hawkins Brown was deter- mined to turn out well-rounded future leaders. ALSO: Harry Lew, eighteen, became the first African-American professional basketball player when his team, the Pautucketville Athletic Club of the New England League, played Marlborough.
1903: WILL McLAUGHLIN, eighteen
Described as “a young man of eighteen summers” by ohiohistory.org, McLaughlin rushed into a burning Chicago theater and rescued more than a dozen women and children before plunging to his death. The Iroquois Theater burst into flames during a matinee attended by 1,900 people, most of them women and children. ALSO: Aida De Acosta, nineteen, became the first female to pilot a powered aircraft by herself. The Cuban American met Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator, on a trip to France and talked him into letting her pilot one of his di- rigibles. While she soared, Santos-Dumont followed below on a bicycle.
1904: LOUIS A. BAUMANN JR., ERNESTINE ATWOOD, seventeen
Baumann and Atwood, both seventeen, were the first male and female winners of the Carnegie medal for bravery, established by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1904. Baumann plunged into a pond near Pittsburgh to save sixteen-year-old Charles Stevick. It took Baumann three tries to bring in Stevick, who was unconscious and believed dead when he reached solid ground. One month later, Atwood dived into the ocean south of Boston to retrieve thirty-six-year-old Harry M. Smith, who had exhausted himself and sunk while trying to swim to a fifty-foot ocean float. ALSO: Ben Sands, thirteen, discovered the Lost Sea in Tennessee, one of the world’s largest underground lakes.
1905: AMANDA CLEMENT, seventeen
Some say Clement became baseball’s first female umpire at age sixteen in 1904; others say she debuted a year later. Stationed behind the pitcher, the usual placement for an ump in her day, she worked as many as sixty games a season for six years in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, earning $15 to $25 per game. “She demanded the players’ respect,” her nephew E.F. Clement told Sports Illustrated in 1971. “If they didn’t like it, out they went.”
1906: WILLIE HOPPE, eighteen
Hoppe (pronounced “hoppy”), upset the “Lion of France” to win the first of his 51 billiards world championships in 1906. Staging what the Associated Press in 1941 called “one of the most surprising sports upsets of the era,” he defeated Maurice Vignaux, aka “Lion of France,” at the 18.2 balkline billiards championship in Paris.
1907: PAULINE NEWMAN, sixteen
Described as a “frail-looking little woman” by The New York Times, Newman organized a successful New York City rent strike in 1907. She sought a reduction of eighteen to twenty percent in rents due to a depression that had thrust more than 100,000 people out of work. After fifteen days, the strike ended with 2,000 families receiving lowered rents. ALSO: Cromwell Dixon, fifteen, built and flew what he called a “skycycle” in 1907. His creation allowed the rider to pedal through the air — with the help of an enormous gasbag. Cromwell publicly debuted his skycycle on his fifteenth birthday. A crowd of 20,000 watched him ascend the city of St. Louis and take off during the International Balloon Race of 1907. He landed eight miles away in Illinois.
1908: ALTA WEISS, eighteen
Called the “Girl Wonder” in newspapers, Weiss pitched for a Cleveland-based barn-storming team called the Weiss All-Stars that compiled a 21-19-1 record in 1908. While the male players wore white uniforms, Weiss wore black. She played baseball while studying medicine, graduating from the Starling-Ohio Medical School in 1914.
1909: GORDON ENGLAND. eighteen
England in 1909 flew a glider named Olive at a height of one hundred feet in what is the first recorded soaring flight. He later won renown as an airplane engineer and designer as well as a race car designer.
YOUNG PEOPLE HAVE BEEN RECORDING hit songs since before thirteen-year-old Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers hit it big with 1956’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” The list of teenage recording stars includes Chubby Checker, Herman’s Hermits, The Jackson 5, Debbie Gibson, LeAnn Rimes, Kriss Kross, Britney Spears, Monica, Mario, and dozens more.
Writing hit songs before turning twenty, that’s a whole different ballgame. Teenagers composed (at least partially) all of the following:
1. “Hound Dog.” Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. 1952
Leiber and Stoller were both nineteen with they wrote this rocker for Big Mama Thornton. Four years later, Elvis Presley made the tune a monster pop hit, but the writers preferred the Thornton’s R&B version. “Elvis played with the song, Big Mama nailed it,” Leiber said in 2009’s Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography.
2. “That’ll Be The Day.” Written by Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison. 1956
Holly was nineteen and Allison sixteen when they first recorded “That’ll Be The Day” in 1956. Holly and the Crickets re-recorded it and had a number-one hit one year later. Linda Ronstadt took her version of the song to number eleven on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1976.
3. “Summertime Blues.” Written by Eddie Cochran and Jerry Capehart. 1958
At nineteen, Cochran co-wrote and recorded one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring singles, although the original “Summertime Blues” only went to number eight on the singles charts. The song has also been covered by The Who, Blue Cheer, Alan Jackson, and Olivia Newton-John.
4. “Royals.” Written by Lorde and Joel Little. 2012
The New Zealander, fifteen, needed just a half hour to write “Royals” in July of 2012. The song spent nine weeks at number one in 2013. She was the youngest artist to have a number-one U.S hit since, Tiffany, who didn’t write her 1987 hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
5. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. 1960
King, eighteen, composed the melody and Goffin the lyrics for this song, a number-one 1961 hit for The Shirelles. King and Goffin worked other jobs until selling “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to song publisher Don Kirshner, who gave them both a $10,000 advance for the slightly risqué tune (it’s about post-coital regret).
6. “Green Onions.” Written by Booker T. Jones and three others. 1962
This bluesy instrumental began as a “little ditty I’d been playing on piano, except I switched to Hammond M3 organ,” Booker T. Jones told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2012. Jones was just seventeen when he created the infectious organ line to “Green Onions.” Originally a B-side song, the tune went to number-one on the R&B charts and peaked at number three on the Billboard singles chart. “It just happened,” said Booker T., who had six more top-40 hits with the MGs, but none as big as “Green Onions.”
7. “Walk Away Renée.” Written by Michael Brown and two others. 1966
Left Banke keyboardist Michael Brown, seventeen, wrote this song about Renée Fladen, the girlfriend of band-member Tom Finn. Rolling Stone ranked the Left Banke tune number 220 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
8. “By The Time I Get to Phoenix.” Written by Jimmy Webb. 1965
Webb has said he was seventeen when he wrote “Up, Up and Away,” a hit for the Fifth Dimension, seventeen or eighteen when he wrote “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” and nineteen when he wrote “MacArthur Park,” a number-two hit for actor-singer Richard Harris in 1968 and a three-week chart-topper when covered by Donna Summer in 1978. “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” recorded by Glen Campbell, and “Up, Up and Away” combined for eight Grammy awards in 1968.
9. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” Written by Stevie Wonder and others. 1965
This was Wonder’s first self-penned (with others) hit. Written when he was fifteen, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1966. At seventeen, Wonder co-wrote “I Was Made to Love Her,” a number-two hit in 1967, and “My Cherie Amour,” which wasn’t released until 1969 and went to number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
10. “Wedding Bell Blues.” Written by Laura Nyro. 1966
It took three years for a pair of Nyro songs to climb the charts for other artists. Written at eighteen, “Wedding Bell Blues” was a smash for The 5th Dimension in 1969, spending three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She also wrote “And When I Die” at eighteen, with Blood, Sweat & Tears taking the tune to number two in 1969. Nyro penned “Stoned Cold Picnic,” a number-three hit for The 5th Dimension in 1968, and “Eli’s Coming,” which peaked at number 10 for Three Dog Night in 1969.
11. “Complicated.” Written by Avril Lavigne and others. 2002
“I write my own songs, and when I’m in front of a camera, I don’t try to act like something or someone I’m not,” Lavigne told USA Today in 2002, voicing the message expressed in her first hit single, “Complicated.” Written when she was seventeen, the song is about frustration with someone showing a false face to the world. The song went to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
12. “Gloria.” Written by Van Morrison. 1963
Morrison, eighteen, wrote “Gloria” in the sumemr of 1963 and recorded the song with his band, Them, in late 1964. A garage-band classic, the tune is distinguished by its “G-L-O-R-I-A” chorus.
13. “Stay.” Written by Maurice Williams. 1953
“Stay” didn’t stay on the turntable very long; at one minute and thirty-seven seconds, it is the briefest number-one single in Billboard history. Williams was fifteen when he wrote the song in 1953. Seven years later, it was a chart-topper for Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs.
14. “Poor Little Fool.” Written by Sharon Sheeley. 1955
Sheeley made history in 1958 as the youngest woman at the time to write a number-one hit song. Composed three years earlier, “Poor Little Fool” became the first chart-topper for Ricky Nelson.
15. “At the Hop.” Written by Dave White and two others. 1958
The Danny & the Juniors do-wop group featured a sixteen-year-old lead singer named Danny Rapp, but it was eighteen-year-old Dave White who did much of the writing on “At the Hop,” the number-one Billboard single of 1958.
16. “Eve of Destruction.” Written by P.F. Sloan. 1964
Barry McGuire’s gravelly vocals took “Eve of Destruction,” a protest song, to number one in 1965. Sloan was just eighteen when he wrote the tune, which refers to human rights violations in China, violence in Selma, Alabama, and the Kennedy assassination.
This wasn’t easy, ranking young athletes playing different sports at different times. I tried to emphasize the rarity of the athletic feat and degree of difficulty involved, but that failed to simplify the process. Nadia Comaneci, for instance, is one of several teenage female gymnasts to win Olympic gold medals. That should drop her on the list, but no other gymnast had a performance to match her run of perfect scores at the 1976 Olympic Games.
Then there’s the Josh Gibson conundrum. The Negro League superstar may have had the greatest teenage year in all of baseball history when he reportedly slugged 75 home runs in 1931. But imprecise record keeping muddies Gibson’s accomplishments. I believe he was sensational at nineteen and rank him high, but I’d rank him even higher if I knew for sure what he’d accomplished.
At any rate, here are fourteen of the greatest teenage athletes of all time:
1. Pelé. Age 17. Soccer player. 1958
The nickname Pelé (his real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento) “means nothing in any language but evokes images of genius and gentility in them all,” wrote Hank Hersch of Sports Illustrated in 1999. At seventeen, Pelé scored Brazil’s only goal in a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Wales, three goals in a 5-2 semifinal win over France, and two goals as Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 for the first of the nation’s five World Cup championships.
2. Bob Mathias. Decathlete. Age 17. 1948
Urged to train for his first decathlon, Mathias told his high school track coach, “Sounds like fun. But just one question: What’s a decathlon?’” Five months later the 6-foot-1-inch, 190-pound Californian was sloshing down a dark, rainy track in London toward an Olympic gold medal. He defeated second-place finisher Ignace Heinrich of France to become the youngest athlete at the time to win an Olympic gold in track and field. Mathias repeated as Olympic decathlon champ in 1952, setting a new world record with 7,887 points and finishing more than 900 points ahead of the second-place finisher.
3. Nadia Comaneci. Gymnast. Age 14. 1976
Nicknamed “Little Miss Perfect,” the Romanian was indeed little (4 foot 11, 86 pounds) and frequently flawless at the Montreal Games. The first person to be awarded a perfect 10 score in an Olympic gymnastic event, she received seven 10s in all and won three gold medals at the Montreal Games. “On a scale of 1 to 10, she really deserves an 11 for what she has accomplished in relation to the scores of other gymnasts,” wrote Dave Anderson of The New York Times.
4. Steve Cauthen. Jockey. Age 16. 1977
A teenager dominated the horse racing world in 1977, riding a record 487 winners, earning a record $6.15 million, and becoming the only jockey named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. For his 1978 encore, Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown. Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated called Cauthen “a prodigy like none we have ever seen before.”
5. Tom Morris Jr. Golfer. Age 17. 1868
The Tiger Woods of his era, Tom Morris Jr. in 1868 recorded a hole-in-one on the eighth hole at the Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland, the first ever in a major championship. and went on to win the British Open for the first of four times. In September of 1875, playing an exhibition golf match, Morris Jr. received news that his pregnant wife had gone into labor. By the time he reached her, both his wife and child had died in childbirth. Three months later, on Christmas Day, the golfer suffered a fatal lung hemorrhage. He was just 24 years old.
6. Josh Gibson. Age 19. 1931
Sorting fact from fiction is difficult with Gibson, the Negro League superstar whose power-hitting feats began as a rookie for the Homestead Grays in 1930. He hit two jaw-dropping home runs late that year, one that cleared the center field fence at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and one that traveled about 505 feet and may have cleared the Yankee Stadium roof. The Negro League Baseball Players Association website credits him with 75 home runs as a nineteen-year-old in 1931.
7. Maureen Connolly. Tennis player. Age 18. 1953
Known as “Little Mo,” Connolly’s other nickname, “Killer,” fit her better. Cheerful and engaging off the court, she confessed in 1957’s Forehand Drive to playing tennis with “a blazing, virulent, powerful, and consuming hate” of her opponents. This intensity carried Connolly to the first grand slam by a female tennis player in 1953. The San Diego native won the last nine Grand Slam tournaments she entered and received her third straight Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award. Seventeen days after winning her third straight Wimbledon title in 1954, Connolly was thrown from a horse and slammed against a cement truck, resulting in a broken fibula that ended her career at age nineteen.
8. Jim Ryun. Runner. Age 17. 1965
Racing in a group that included three-time Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell, Ryun established a then-record American mile time of 3:55.3. Ryun’s time remained a high school record until Alan Webb of Reston, Virgina, finally eclipsed it in 2001. ESPN.com in 2007 ranked the runner from Wichita (Kansas) East High School as the best high school athlete ever, ahead of second-place Tiger Woods (golf) and third-place LeBron James (basketball).
9. Lisa Leslie. Basketball player. Age 17. 1990
In her last home game at Morningside High (Inglewood, California), Leslie made 37-of-56 field goals, sunk 27 free throws, and scored 101 points — in just one half of a game against South Torrence. The 6-foot-5-inch center averaged 27 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots as a senior and led Morningside to back-to-back state championships before moving on to college at USC and a career in the WNBA, where she was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2001, 2004 and 2006.
10. Bob Feller. Baseball player. Age 17. 1936
At seventeen, Feller struck out an American League record (at the time) 17 batters in one game for the 1936 Cleveland Indians, tying the major record held by the Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean. Feller set a new record at age 19 with 18 strikeouts in one game. Three players share the current record of 20 strikeouts in one game.
11. Sonja Henie. Figure skater. Age 15. 1928
The difference between Henie and most other champion figure skaters is the Norwegian didn’t just grab a gold medal and fade away — she kept on winning. After her first gold-medal performance in 1928, Henie earned a second gold in the 1932 Winter Olympics, and a third in 1936. She also won 10 straight world championships from 1927 to 1936, conquered Hollywood from 1936 to 1948, and amassed a personal fortune that made her one of the world’s 10 richest women at the time of her death in 1969.
12. Jean Balukas. Pool player. Age 13. 1972
Described by Sports Illustrated as “a taciturn, shy, freckle-faced girl,” Balukas breezed through the 1972 women’s U.S. Open straight pool championship, defeating six opponents and taking home the tournament’s $1,500 prize. An all-around athlete who excelled in basketball, softball, bowling, and golf, Balukas would win seven consecutive U.S. Opens and be acclaimed by many as the greatest female pool player of all time.
13. Boris Becker. Tennis player. Age 17. 1985
Mixing a huge serve with a dive-on-the-grass fervor, Becker made history as the first 17-year-old, the first unseeded player, and the first German to win a Wimbledon men’s title. Becker, who referred to Centre Court as his “living room” repeated as Wimbledon champion in 1986 and won a third title in 1989.
14. Wilfred Benitez. Boxer Age 17. 1976
A split decision victory over Antonio Cervantes gave Benitez the World Boxing Association junior welterweight title and made him a hero in his native Puerto Rico, but a decade later a neurologist would diagnose him with a degenerative brain condition caused by the punches he took in the boxing ring. Benitez won the World Boxing Council’s welterweight championship in 1979 and the WBC’s light middleweight championship in 1981. He displayed signs of brain damage after retiring a week after his 32nd birthday and moved into a Puerto Rico nursing home. Those close to him said Benitez couldn’t remember people he’d known for years.