Late Tigers owner revered for generosity, heralded as 'tireless worker'
By Daniel Kramer
Detroit celebrated the life of Mike Ilitch on Wednesday by bringing together a congregation of the town's most respected sports figures at the historic Fox Theatre, an apt venue given the late Tigers and Red Wings owner's impact on the city and its restoration efforts.
Ilitch bought and renovated the Fox in 1987 -- five years before he purchased the Tigers -- and then moved his suburban Little Caesars Pizza corporate headquarters into the building as one of many investments to revitalize downtown Detroit. It was a fitting platform for the entrepreneur's memorial, which drew some of the city's most prominent figures and former President George W. Bush.
"He knew he was known as 'Mr. I,' but I truly believe if Mike Ilitch got to pick the letter he'd be known as, Mike Ilitch wouldn't say 'I.' That letter would be 'U,'" longtime Detroit radio broadcaster Paul W. Smith said. "He did everything for you in the family, for the family, with the family."
Ilitch passed away on Feb. 10. He was 87.
A Detroit native who had a fervent passion for his hometown, Ilitch left an imprint on the Tigers that dates to the 1950s, when he was an infielder in their farm system. When he didn't reach the Majors, Ilitch founded Little Caesars in '59 as one of many ventures that contributed to his successful empire.
But for all of his entrepreneurial endeavors, sports remained a paramount passion.
Ilitch purchased the Red Wings in '82, a year after they finished in last place, and brought them back to prominence over the next decade. A '92 Financial World magazine ranking listed the team as NHL's most valuable.
"I'd just like to say I admired Mr. Ilitch's humility," said Ken Holland, Red Wings general manager since '97. "He had incredible passion. He was intense. He was determined. I thought he was a tireless worker. He was emotionally involved in everything we did. He was willing to take risks. He was very generous. He loved a good laugh and a good story, and made us all feel part of the family. I've only worked for one owner in my life, but I believe I worked for the very best owner in professional sports."
In '92, Ilitch bought the Tigers and extended his stamp on Detroit sports. It was during Ilitch's ownership in MLB when he established a relationship with Bush, who owned the Texas Rangers in the '90s before becoming the state's governor and eventually the 43rd President.
At Wednesday's ceremony, Bush was seated next to Ilitch's widow, Marian, and son, Chris, who last year was named the family's successor in ownership of the Tigers and Red Wings.
When Bush spoke, with his trademark Southern chuckle, he light-heartedly joked about the competitiveness between his Rangers and Ilitch's Tigers. It was an homage to his good-natured relationship with Ilitch.
"Mike supported [Detroit] in many ways," Bush said. "He supported the fans of sports teams. He loved the Red Wings, and they were mighty. He loved the Tigers, and they weren't so mighty. Of course, the Texas Rangers never won anything anyway."
Bush also praised Ilitch for his baseball acumen.
"My favorite moments with Mike, when I was able to spend time with him, was to talk baseball," Bush said. "He knew a lot about the game, a whole lot, and one of the great tributes to baseball owners [is] when these people in the sport say: 'That guy was a baseball man.' And that was Mike Ilitch."
Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.