It has been said that every American male is a failed baseball player. Mike Ilitch was no different. The son of Macedonian immigrants nearly realized the dream of every kid who grew up in the shadow of Detroit: playing for the Tigers.
After serving in the Marine Corps for four years, he returned to Detroit. The Tigers offered him $3,000 to play baseball in their farm system. Ilitch played in the farm systems of many teams during his four-year minor league career which spanned from 1952 to 1955.
For the 1952 season, Ilitch played second base at two different levels in the Tigers farm system with the Hot Springs Bathers and the Jamestown Falcons. His career was cut short by a knee injury. In his time with the Tigers organization, he hit .249 with 22 doubles and 10 triples. He never hit a homerun that year.
Ilitch passed away on Feb. 10 at the age of 87. He was born and died in Detroit and is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Michigan history. He founded Little Caesars pizza in 1959 which has expanded to have restuarants in all 50 states and many foreign countries.
Ilitch insisted that the company’s headquarters remain in Detroit. His company also sponsored the construction of the new Little Caesar’s Arena, where the Red Wings and the Pistons will play next season. Detroit will be the only North American city to have four major sports teams playing downtown.
He purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 for $8 million and turned them into perennial contenders for the Stanley Cup. With his deft business acumen, they won four NHL championships under his ownership.
Ilitch proved his love for Tigers when he footed the majority of the bill for Comerica Park, which replaced the old Tigers Stadium. He invested $210 million in the stadium. This was only a hint toward the future financial commitments he would make for the team.
In 2012, rumors spread that Ilitch was getting older and wanted to make a big push for a championship. Under his ownership, the Tigers had turned a wildcard bid into a World Series run which ended in defeat after five games with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Every wide-eyed young sports fan deserves to have his favorite team win a title in his lifetime. Ilitch was fortunate to have his team win four: in 1935, 1945, 1968, and 1984. But he wanted to give the people of Detroit another title when they needed it most.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the people of Detroit needed something to believe in. The Lions had just suffered the first winless season in NFL history. The federal government had to bail out the entire automobile industry.
Ilitch, at the age of 82, signed some of the largest contracts in MLB history in order to win a World Series. In 2012, Ilitch signed power-hitter Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract. It was the fourth-largest contract in baseball history. The Tigers lost the World Series that year to the San Francisco Giants in four games.
During the 2013 season, Ilitch agreed to sign starting pitcher Justin Verlander, the rookie hero of the 2006 World Series run, to a seven-year, $180 million contract extension. No pitcher had ever been offered a contract that large. That year, they lost to Boston in the ALCS in six games.
Still, Ilitch was not finished. After watching the team hemorrhage money in its quest for a championship for the past two seasons, fans figured that 2014 would be the Tiger’s best shot at a World Series. Ilitch emptied the farm system of talent through trades to acquire Joakim Soria, a former all-star closer, and acquired David Price, the winner of the 2012 Cy Young Award, at great cost.
Signing David Price meant that the Tigers’ starting rotation consisted of previous four winners of the Cy Young award between Prince, Verlander, and Max Scherzer. Ilitch’s dream became an arms race. These decisions showed his love for the team and for the city as well as his desire to leave a parting gift for his city.
In 2014, the Baltimore Orioles swept the Tigers in the first round of the postseason. But it didn’t matter so much. The fans saw the owner’s dream and they loved him for it.
The Tigers will win a championship someday, and as the players raise the Commissioner’s Trophy, they will remember Ilitch. We all will. Because he was a ball player with a dream, just like the rest of us.