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In Memoriam: Mike Ilitch

Mike IlitchMike Ilitch, who washed out of the Detroit Tigers farm system and professional baseball after signing a 1951 contract only to end up buying the team in 1992, passed away today. He was 87.

Ilitch carried a passion for baseball from his high-school days at Detroit’s Cooley High School through a four-year stint with U.S. Marines and a four-season MiLB career that included stops with the Hot Springs Bathers (Class C; Cotton States League), Tampa Smokers (Class B; Florida International League) and the Charlotte Hornets (Class A; Sally League). He then returned to Detroit and launched Little Caesars Pizza in 1959, building the enterprise born in a strip mall into a nationwide chain.

But baseball was still his passion, and he ended up buying the Detroit Tigers from fellow pizza magnate Tom Monaghan in 1992. He had already owned the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings for a decade by that time. From the Detroit Free Press:

“A guy like myself,” Ilitch said at Tiger Stadium after buying the team on Aug. 26, 1992, “to be able to come back to the game, it just never gets out of your blood. There is a special camaraderie in baseball that the guys know when they leave the game, they are never going to have that same association in business. It’s really something special.”…

“I’m not a savior of anything,” Ilitch said in 1992. “All the things I’ve done, if you broke them down, you’d see a lot of it was the people behind me. … But I’m excited. I want to bring baseball back to where it once was with this franchise. I’ll probably spend every spare minute I have here. This is the game I love.”

They lost to the Cardinals in the World Series that season, and again to the Giants in the 2012 Fall Classic, coming oh-so close to delivering Ilitch the world championship he so coveted, to pair with four Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings.

The Tigers are now valued at $1.150 billion. Along the way Ilitch also led a renaissance of downtown Detroit, first with the development of Comerica Field and now with the impending opening of Little Caesars Arena.

Image courtesy Ilitch Holdings.

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