AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff, but if you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.
Steven A. Riess is a retired history professor, formerly the Bernard Brommel Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of History at Northeastern Illinois University. He currently lives in suburban Chicago and has been an AHA member since 1970.
Alma mater/s: New York University (BA); University of Chicago (MA, PhD)
Fields of interest: history of American sport; U.S. urban history; U.S. social history; American ethnic history
When did you first develop an interest in history?
My interest in history started in grade school, where I started to delve into historical novels. This interest grew all the way through junior high and high school, with the guidance of many great teachers. One teacher in particular was Mr. Lindsay, a graduate student at the time, who inspired me and my love of history.
What projects are you working on currently?
I recently finished The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics, and Crime in New York, 1865–1913 (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2011), finalist for the Best Book on Non-Fiction, Society of Midland Authors; edited Sports in America: From Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century, 3 vols. (M.E. Sharpe, 2011); and completed second editions of Sports in Industrial America, 1850–1920 (Harlan Davidson, 2012) and Major Problems in American Sport History (Cengage, 2013). My current projects include a book on the history of horse racing and gambling in Chicago, as well as editing the Blackwell Companion to the History of American Sports.
What is the last great book or article you have read?
I greatly enjoyed and learned a lot from Robert K. Fitts’ Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012). Trained as a historical anthropologist, Fitts analyzes baseball in the U.S. and Japan as a symbol of each nation’s national identity during troubled times. The tour occurred at a time when relations between the U.S. and Japan were strained by the end of naval treaties, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, growing Japanese nationalism, and widespread racial prejudice. I also enjoyed the book’s great range of topics: diplomacy, espionage, an attempt to overthrow the Japanese government, Japanese adulation of American major leaguers (especially Babe Ruth), and efforts to promote professional baseball in Japan.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I regularly showed Eight Men Out in my sport history, history of crime, and history of Chicago classes. It does a wonderful job depicting the subculture of the game: the relations between management and labor, the underworld interests in gambling, and the way the game symbolized to fans all the finest American qualities—despite the flawed realities of the business of baseball and the heroes on the diamond.
What do you value most about the history profession?
I love that history provides participants with an opportunity to research, write, and teach about the evolution of American culture and institutions to a variety of audiences—from fellow professionals, to students, to the general public.
Other than history, of course, what are you passionate about?
Any final thoughts?
I have had a wonderful career as a historian that included 35 years at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. However, like many others of my generation, it was a struggle to a) finish the dissertation, and b) get employed. When I came on the job market in the mid-1970s, there wasn’t much of a market. I was lucky to get a couple of one-year positions, and then a tenure-track job at Northeastern, which I never left. The market that was supposed to recover never has. Some years ago, senior professors were urged to retire to make way for younger people; what happened was, they were not replaced, or contingency appointees were hired instead. I am very concerned about the future of the field and of the profession.