Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner for more than two decades, has died at age 87. The Ilitch organization has confirmed the death.
A Detroit native who famously became a billionaire after founding the Little Caesars pizza chain in 1959, Ilitch bought the team in 1992, a decade after he purchased the Red Wings, but the baseball franchise was unable to win a championship during his tenure. The Wings won four.
However, the Tigers went through times both rocky and memorable during his time as owner. He oversaw the building of the team’s first new ballpark in more than eight decades when Comerica Park opened in 2000. Just three years later the club nearly set the loss record, going just 43-119.
But from about 2006 forward, the Tigers entered what would otherwise be seen as a golden era if only the team won a championship. Detroit made its first appearance in the World Series in 22 years that season, and returned again in 2012. The club made the playoffs in 2006 and 2011-2014, falling just short after dropping Game 163 in Minnesota in 2009.
Tigers fans were treated by an owner who had no problem opening his checkbook to make sure Comerica Park had plenty of stars. Future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera was the most notable acquisition, but players like Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez were signed before that. He also made sure that Cy Young Award and MVP winner Justin Verlander would spend the bulk of his career in Detroit.
“I’ve never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I. What he has done for this franchise, and for Detroit, is immeasurable,” Tigers GM Al Avila said in a statement. “He was always there to give us whatever we needed because he wanted greatness and happiness for all of us – especially the fans. Mr. I was truly one of the great ones. He was a friend and an inspiration and he will be deeply missed.”
“I'm crushed right now. He did so much for me,” former TIgers manager Jim Leyland said (via Anthony Fenech). Leyland noted what he regrets most is not being able to win a championship ring for Ilitch.
The Wings were a treat to fans as well, and made the playoffs for 25 consecutive years under Ilitch. Their new home, Little Caesars Arena, will open this fall within blocks of Comerica Park.
Chris Ilitch, in a statement released by the family, stated
“My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family,” Christopher Ilitch said in a statement. “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.”
Outside the realm of sports, Ilitch left a lasting legacy in the city by always believing in the city of Detroit even during its darker periods, investing in downtown, and restoring the beautiful Fox Theater, which is located near the stadium.
The family will hold a private funeral but plans to have a public event with details to come later.
The city of Detroit and its sports fans have lost a great son and a true icon.