Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mike Ilitch, 1929-2017

When the most famous living American of a particular ancestry dies, it's usually big news. But most of us don't know of anyone that we know to be of Macedonian descent.

Macedonia is a region that includes both the region of Macedonia within the nation of Greece (the Hellenic Republic) and the Republic of Macedonia (often called "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," as it was once part of Yugoslavia). There are about 61,000 people of this ancestry in America, and the best-known of them are the Ilitch family of Detroit, whose patriarch just passed away.


Michael Ilitch (no middle name) was born on July 20, 1929 in Detroit, a son of immigrants, and graduated from the city's Thomas M. Cooley High School. (The 1975 film Cooley High takes place at a fictional school in Chicago, and is not connected to Ilitch's alma mater.) Among its alumni are former baseball pitcher Milt Pappas, basketball star Roy Tarpley, actress S. Epatha Merkerson, and James P. Hoffa, like his father James R. (Jimmy Hoffa) the President of the International Teamsters Union.

Mike Ilitch enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and his service included the Korean War. He was signed by his hometown Detroit Tigers as a 2nd baseman, but his career ended in 1955, with a knee injury, before he could reach the major leagues.

He married Marian Bayoff, also a Detroit-born daughter of Macedonian immigrants, and in 1959 they opened Little Caesars Pizza Treat in nearby Garden City. It grew by leaps and bounds, and now has stores all over the world. The company has grown into Ilitch Holdings, and the family's net worth is believed to be around $6 billion.

They had 7 children, all of whom now have their names on the Stanley Cup as part-owners of the Detroit Red Wings: Denise (a lawyer and a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents), Ron (a Little Caesars executive who's run into legal issues, to put it politely), Mike Jr. (a film producer), Christopher (who succeeded his father as CEO of Ilitch Holdings), Lisa Ilitch Murray (a minister), Atanas (an actor) and Carole Ilitch Trepeck (a lawyer).


In 1982, Mike Ilitch bought Olympia Entertainment from Bruce Norris, ending the Norris' family's 50 years of ownership of the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings and their arena, first the Olympia Stadium, and then the Joe Louis Arena. The 1st half of that, it had been run by Bruce's father, James E. Norris, and they'd won 7 Stanley Cups. The 2nd half of it, it had been run by Bruce, and they'd won none. By the time the Wings left the Olympia for The Joe in 1979, Bruce's cheapness and authoritarianism had rendered the team a joke, the "Dead Things."

Mike, a.k.a. "Mr. I," bought the Wings for $8 million -- just under $20 million in today's money. According to, the Wings are now worth $600 million, or 30 times what Ilitch paid for them (with inflation factored in), and the 8th-most valuable franchise in the NHL.

How did that happen? Ilitch understood that you can't run a sports team on the cheap and expect to win, so he invested in the front office, which led to investing in the team's minor-league and scouting systems. He understood that a sports team is like a pizza: You can't just say, "Buy my stuff," you have to have the best ingredients, the best preparers, and the best preparation process.

That 1st season, 1982-83, was the 5th straight season and the 15th in the last 17 years that the Wings did not make the Playoffs. But that was also the 1st season in which Ilitch's key 1st hire was in charge, general manager Jim Devellano. Under Jimmy D's guidance, in 1987-88, the Wings had won the NHL's old Norris Division (named for James D., not Bruce), their 1st 1st-place finish in 23 years.

From 1983-84 to 2015-16, 33 seasons, the Wings at least made the Playoffs 31 times. (They are unlikely to make it this season, though.) In 16 of those seasons, they won their Division. In 10 of those seasons, they made the Conference Finals. In 6, they won the President's Trophy for finishing 1st overall in the League in the regular season. In 6, they won the Conference (though not since their move from the Western to the Eastern in 2013). In 4, they won the Stanley Cup: 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, all won by Scotty Bowman, who'd previously won 5 Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and 1 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Stars like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Mike Vernon, Henrik Zetterberg, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty and Pavel Datsyuk were signed. By 1996, it had proven to not be quite enough, so Mr. I, Jimmy D and Scotty brought in Brendan Shanahan, and in 1997 and 1998, it was done. After a minor lull, veterans Chris Chelios, Brett Hull and Dominik Hasek were brought in, and the Cup was won again in 2002 and 2008. Ilitch, Yzerman, Lidstrom, Fetisov and Fedorov are now in the Hall of Fame. (So is Bowman, but he was already in before he joined the Wings organization.)

Mr. I would tell people, "I hate to lose. I happen to be a fan with an owner's pocketbook."


Shortly after Mr. I bought the Wings, another pizza mogul, Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza, bought Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers. They won the World Series in 1984 and reached the American League Championship Series again in 1987, but fell apart. And Monaghan enraged Tiger fans by announcing that Tiger Stadium, built in 1912, would have to be replaced.

In 1992, Ilitch bought the Tigers from Monaghan. Unfortunately, he agreed with Monaghan that Tiger Stadium, for all its history, would not permit the Tigers to make a profit. He began the process that Monaghan began, and replaced the old ballyard. Working with William Clay Ford Jr., who ran the Detroit Lions for his father (Henry Ford's grandson), he helped to remake "Midtown Detroit," with the renovation of the Fox Theatre as part of a skyscraper that includes Little Caesars' headquarters, the Tigers' Comerica Park (which opened in 2000), and the Lions' Ford Field (which opened in 2002).

Comerica Park cost $350 million, and Mr. I paid 60 percent of it himself. This eased some of the anger toward him. Eventually, people realized how much he'd already done for both the city and the Red Wings, and that leaving Tiger Stadium wasn't his idea in the first place. And it did insure that the team would never move.

But the Tigers still didn't win. In 2003, they lost 119 games, an AL record. Ilitch realized that he wasn't doing in baseball what he was doing in hockey, and so he turned his attention to the ballclub. He and GM Dave Dombrowski began to rebuild. In came Ivan Rodriguez, Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, Delmon Young, Victor Martinez, and pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, managed by Jim Leyland.

In 2004, they went 72-90. That wasn't good, but it was an improvement of 29 games. After a similar season in 2005, in 2006 they won the Pennant, the team's 1st in 22 years. They lost the World Series, but at least they were a respectable team again.

The Tigers made the Playoffs again in 2008. In 2011, they beat the Yankees in the AL Division Series before losing the ALCS to the Texas Rangers. In 2012, they won another Pennant, although they got swept by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. In 2013 and '14, they reached the Playoffs again, before sliding back downhill. They've made the Playoffs in 6 of the last 11 seasons, but they've still won just 1 World Series game since 1984.

By winning the 2006 ALDS, the 2011 ALDS and the 2012 ALCS, the Tigers also became the 1st American League team to beat the Yankees in 3 separate postseasons. (Only the St. Louis Cardinals and, if you accept moved franchises, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers have done that from the National League.)

Ilitch bought the Tigers for $85 million -- about $145 million in today's money. Today, the franchise is worth about $1.125 billion, a 776 percent increase. In fact, they're worth almost twice as much as the Wings, even though the title count under Mr. I's ownership is 4-0 in the Wings' favor.


Mr. I has also founded the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, which has served more than 2 million hungry people in the Detroit area (and in the Windsor area, across the river in Canada). He also founded the Little Caesars Veterans Program to provide jobs for returning military veterans, as he remembers how hard it was for him when he came back. Ilitch Charities, part of Ilitch Holdings, also contributed to Detroit's Wayne State University, and the school renamed its business school the Mike Ilitch School of Business.

When civil rights icon Rosa Parks fell behind on her rent, Mr. I found out, and paid it. Today, Detroit's bus terminal is named for her. He could have done something to make the city name it for him. Instead, it's named for her, which is appropriate, since keeping her seat on a bus is what made her famous.

He was also watching the Wings' new Little Caesars Arena, just a 5-minute walk from Comerica Park, near its completion. The Wings and the NBA's Detroit Pistons will move in this Autumn.

But he did not live to see that. Mike Ilitch died this past Friday, February 10, 2017, in Detroit, at the age of 87.

Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press wrote, "Mike Ilitch was a tough-ass, old-school Detroiter, the kind of guy whose story we fell in love with a long time ago in this city."

Mayor Mike Duggan said, "Mike Ilitch was more than just a shrewd successful businessman. He was a Detroiter through and through. Whether he was making pizza, building successful sports and entertainment franchises, or supporting youth organizations in our city, Mr. I helped to bring thousands of jobs and opportunities to our city, and attract millions of dollars of investment."

His son Chris Ilitch is in line to be the controlling owner of the Tigers and the Wings, although his widow Marian is said to be interested in selling the Motor City Casino. Severing her relationship with gambling may allow her to become the CEO of the Tigers, as MLB (as Pete Rose can tell you) wants nothing to do with gambling.

When the news of Mr. I's death got out, the Fox Theatre replaced its advertisement for the traveling production of Sesame Street Live with an image of his photo, and the words: "A LIFE WELL LIVED."

His city, and sports in general, are better off for that life.

And Little Caesars makes better pizza than Domino's, Pizza Hut and Papa John's, anyway.

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