Emperor of Little Caesars pizza empire started off fielding ground balls in the Detroit Tigers farm system. Injury ended baseball career; opened first slice shop 1959. Modeled franchise on Ray Kroc's McDonald's: cheap ingredients, fast service, drive-up windows. Famous for "Pizza Pizza" 2-for-1 promotions. Trouble late 1990s; refurbished stores, ditched frozen cheese. Estimated annual sales: $1.6 billion. Detroit native bought Tigers 1992. Also owns pro hockey's Detroit Red Wings; team won Stanley Cup in June (fourth championship since 1997). Wife, Marian, owns Detroit's MotorCity Casino. Facing new competition from MGM Mirage; economic downturn depressing casino valuations.
The son of Macedonian immigrants, Mr. Ilitch played baseball at Detroit’s Cooley High School and was signed by his hometown Tigers after his four-year stint in the US Marines, spending three years in the team’s farm system before a knee injury ended his playing career.
But he found his niche in business. His family’s companies had combined revenues of $2.4 billion in 2011.
Mr. Ilitch broke into sports ownership in 1982, when he paid a reported $8 million for the struggling Red Wings. Once a National Hockey League powerhouse, the team had bottomed out to mediocrity, but it began winning again under Ilitch.
The Red Wings took home the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008.
Ilitch also bought Olympia Entertainment, which manages several restaurants and sports and entertainment venues, in 1982.
Husband and wife bought the downtown Fox Theatre five years later and started a massive, $12 million restoration. It reopened a year later and became a lucrative venue for musicals, plays, and other productions.
Then, in 1992, the man who once dreamed of playing for the Detroit Tigers bought the team for $85 million. He moved it in 2000 from the storied but fading Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park, across from the Fox Theatre.
All of Mr. Ilitch’s businesses have their headquarters in the Detroit metropolitan area. His son Christopher is president and chief executive officer of Ilitch Holdings.
In addition to his wife Marian and his son Christopher, Mr. Ilitch is survived by his sons Michael Jr., Atanas and Ron; his daughters, Denise, Lisa and Carole; 22 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.