DETROIT – Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars Pizza, chairman of Ilitch Holdings Inc. and owner of Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Red Wings professional hockey team, died Feb. 10 at a local hospital. He was 87.
Ilitch was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1929 to immigrant parents Sotir Ilitch and Sultana Tasseff Ilitch who came to the United States in 1924. Ilitch attended Detroit public schools, and upon graduation from Cooley High School, he was offered a minor league contract by the Detroit Tigers. Instead, Ilitch joined the US Marine Corps, where he served from 1948 to 1952 at Parris Island, Quantico and Pearl Harbor.
After his discharge from the Marines, the Tigers again offered Ilitch a minor league contract, which he accepted. He played shortstop in the minor league system from 1952 to 1955, making it to AAA and hitting over .300, until a knee injury ended his baseball career.
Ilitch later worked as a door-to-door salesman until he and his wife Marian saved enough money to open the first Little Caesars in Garden City, Michigan, on May 8, 1959. Today, Little Caesars Pizza operates restaurants in 20 countries and territories.
The Ilitch companies employ 23,000 workers worldwide and reported revenues of $3.4 billion in 2016. The Ilitch companies include: Ilitch Holdings Inc., Little Caesars Pizza, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Little Caesars Pizza Kits Fundraising Program and Champion Foods. Marian Ilitch owns the MotorCity Casino Hotel.
Ilitch Charities and its affiliates, the Detroit Red Wings Foundation and the Detroit Tigers Foundation, have donated more than $35 million in cash and in-kind contributions to organizations across the Detroit community since 2005. Mike and Marian Ilitch made personal donations of nearly $50 million to Wayne State Univ., $40 million of which was dedicated to establish the new Mike Ilitch School of Business.
A public memorial site will be organized outside of Comerica Park in Detroit, and a public visitation is scheduled for Feb. 15 at the Fox Theatre Grand Lobby in downtown Detroit.
“To everyone who has so graciously remembered Mike Ilitch, we extend a heartfelt thank you,” the family said in a statement. “The volume of condolences and kind wishes overwhelms us, and we appreciate it more than words can express. We know that he would’ve been touched by the outpouring of support, especially from this community that he so loved. We will miss him tremendously, and we are grateful, humbled and comforted to know that his lifetime was filled with well-lived moments.”