Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has passed away at 87 years of age, Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business reports on Twitter. MLBTR extends its condolences to his family and friends, as well as the entire Tigers organization.
In a press release, his son Christopher — who is the president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. — called his father “a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader.” A son of Macedonian immigrants, the elder Ilitch was born and raised in Detroit. He went on to own two of the city’s iconic sports franchises, the Tigers and the Red Wings of the NHL.
Ilitch spent five years in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school, and then joined the Tigers as an infielder. He ended up playing four seasons of minor-league ball before hanging up his spikes at 25 years of age. From there, according to the release, Ilitch worked as a door-to-door salesman to fund the opening of a pizza joint — the first Little Caesars.
After growing that small business into a massive, multi-national corporation, Ilitch expanded his business holdings. He bought the Red Wings in 1982, overseeing a golden era for that franchise, and took control of the Tigers in 1992.
While the hockey glories never quite carried over into the baseball arena, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Ilitch’s initial period of ownership was notable mostly for the Tigers’ poor play, but things began to turn around after he developed Comerica Park in a public-private partnership in advance of the 2000 season.
The tide broke in 2006, when the Tigers finally reached the postseason for the first time since 1987, advancing to the World Series (where they lost to the Cardinals). Detroit posted winning campaigns in eight of the next eleven seasons, returning to the playoffs four more times. The club made it to the Fall Classic once more in 2012, but again came up short.
Over his later years, Ilitch spared no expense to put a quality product on the field. The Tigers routinely placed among the game’s biggest spenders in player salaries, committing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to acquire and retain star-level talent.
Looking ahead for the Tigers organization, it seems that Christopher Ilitch will largely step into his father’s shoes. While there are indications that the club will look to streamline its finances, the younger Ilitch has expressed a similar passion for fielding a winning team.