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Mike Ilitch changed Detroit in ways he probably never could have imagined

Feb 18, 2017

They don’t make ‘em much like Mike Ilitch anymore.

Here was Detroit distilled, the local guy done good, the former Marine and aspiring shortstop, his Tigers career cut short by a bad knee. The guy who told his teammates he'd open pizza shops across America if his baseball thing didn't work out.

You might have heard of it? Little Caesar's.

Mike Ilitch died last week, the last of a generation of this town's big-leagues sports owners to pass from the scene. None of them had the impact on their hometown like Mike Ilitch. Not William Clay Ford, despite building Ford Field. Not Bill Davidson, who planted his Pistons out in Oakland County for a generation.

The owner of the Red Wings and the Tigers was a different cat. He put his wallet behind his love for Detroit. He invested in the city when others were leaving. He rescued the Fox Theatre, restored its splendor, and transformed its upper floors into corporate offices.

He acquired downtown property – outraging preservationist scolds long on opinions and short on cash. He used the land first to build Comerica Park, and now to build the mammoth District Detroit, which will feature a new Red Wings arena and a whole lot else.

It'll stand as a concrete-and-steel reminder that he doubled-down on his hometown first.

When it opens this fall, Little Caesar's Arena and the surrounding District won't define Ilitch's legacy. It’ll punctuate it.

It'll stand as a concrete-and-steel reminder that he doubled-down on his hometown first.

Ilitch bet on Detroit long before Peter Karmanos Jr. ever considered moving his Compuware downtown or Dan Gilbert made it cool. For awhile, Ilitch’s wager looked like a bad bet on a hard-luck town losing its people and its way.

But he persevered, just like he did after a disastrous 2003 season that left the Tigers the worst team in baseball. Three years later, Ilitch and his boys were in the World Series.

The passing of Ilitch leaves a void that gave post-1967 Detroit some optimism.

The passing of Ilitch leaves a void that gave post-1967 Detroit some optimism. It offered the city a tale of home-grown success when it was badly needed. Like a few of his peers, Ilitch was a first-generation mogul born of modest means. He knew where he came from, and you sensed he never forgot it.

Remember: he and his family didn’t have to do any of it. Didn’t have to leave the suburbs for Detroit or rescue the Fox. Didn’t have to buy the so-called Dead Wings and transform them into a 25-year playoff contender. Didn’t have to take the Tigers off the hands of Ann Arbor’s Tom Monaghan. Didn’t have to invest a billion dollars in a corner of downtown or endow a new business school at Wayne State.

It’s fashionable in the Era of Income Inequality to trash wealthy moguls who dare to spend a piece of their fortunes on their home towns. Mike Ilitch didn’t inherit his fortune. He built it. He didn’t abandon his home town, he invested in it.

He worried less about failure and more about making a difference – which is exactly what he did.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.