Mike Ilitch, who helped turn the Tigers from AL doormat into league champions, died Friday. He was 87 years old.
Both Ilitch Holdings Inc. and the Tigers released statements confirming Ilitch’s death. Ilitch, whose family’s companies had combined revenues of $2.4 billion, also founded Little Caesars Pizza and owned the NHL’s Red Wings.
“My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family,” said Christopher Ilitch, Mike Ilitch’s son and the president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc. “He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends.
“Together my family and the company celebrate the tremendous man he was, and we will continue to work hard to uphold his remarkable legacy. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work with him to nurture and grow our businesses, but mostly, I’m grateful to have called him my dad, and I know my siblings feel the same.”
Family spokesman Doug Kuiper told The Associated Press that Ilitch died at a hospital.
Ilitch spent aggressively to put the best product on the field in search of a championship. Under his stewardship, the Tigers had among the six highest payrolls in the game in each of the past five seasons and last year were one of four clubs that spent more than $200 million on player salaries.
“Mike Ilitch was far more than a model owner of the Tigers franchise, the team he loved all his life and played for as a minor leaguer,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “He was also a fierce believer in his home city of Detroit, and the role that the Tigers and sports played in contributing to civic pride and renewal.
Notably, he paid $214 million to sign Prince Fielder to a nine-year contract in 2012 and gave ace righthander Justin Verlander a seven-year, $180 million contract extension before the 2013 season.
Ilitch in 1992 purchased the Tigers from Tom Monaghan, who founded Domino’s Pizza, for $85 million. After the 2015 season, Forbes valued the team at $1.15 billion, the 14th most valuable in the sport.
Ilitch paid considerably less for his first sports ownership foray, buying the then-moribund Red Wings for $8 million in 1982.
The Tigers claimed Baseball America’s Organization of the Year honor in 1997, two years after John McHale Jr., an Ilitch hire, took over as team president. Ilitch gave McHale freedom to operate without financial restriction in order to two achieve two goals: get approval for a replacement for Tiger Stadium, and reorganize the player-development system to create a winner.
The team broke ground on Comerica Park after the 1997 season, and celebrated its opening in 2000. Six years later, the stadium hosted its first World Series.
While accepting BA’s Organization of the Year Award, general manager Randy Smith praised the working atmosphere created by Ilitch.
“To me, the most important factor was the working conditions,” he said. “Yeah, I could’ve gotten more money in other places—in one instance a lot more—but I knew who my boss was going to be here. That’s all that you can ask for , a boss who lets you do your job like John (McHale) and an owner who is committed to winning like Mr. Ilitch.”