Michael Ilitch Sr. (July 20, 1929 – February 10, 2017) was an American entrepreneur, founder and owner of the international fast food franchise Little Caesars Pizza. He owned the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League and Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball.
A graduate of Cooley High School in Detroit, Michigan, Ilitch served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years.
After his return home to Detroit, the Detroit Tigers offered him $3,000 if he would sign to play baseball, and Ilitch had a four-year minor league career from 1952 to 1955. Ilitch played mostly second base for the Tigers’, New York Yankees’, and Washington Senators’ organizations in the Pennsylvania–Ontario–New York League, Cotton States League, and Florida International League. He was forced out of his playing career due to a knee injury.
After leaving baseball, Ilitch started a pizza business in 1959. With the help of his wife, Marian, the Ilitches opened Little Caesars Pizza Treat in Garden City, Michigan. As of 2017, the family’s entities remain privately held. In 1999, the Ilitches established Ilitch Holdings, Inc. to provide their various enterprises with professional and technical services, and held the titles of chairman and vice chairwoman, respectively. The combined total revenues for these enterprises in 2007 reportedly exceeded $1.8 billion.
In 2000, Ilitch and his wife appointed two of their children as co-presidents of Ilitch Holdings, Inc.: Christopher Ilitch and daughter Denise Ilitch, an attorney. Christopher Ilitch was named to the new post of CEO and president. Denise Ilitch later left the company “to pursue other opportunities”.
Ilitch's heartwarming story
Ilitch reportedly once paid for civil rights activist Rosa Parks’ rent when she moved into Riverfront Apartments in 1994. Parks, was “the first lady of civil rights,” had moved to Detroit in 1957 following her famous resistance to racial segregation in 1955. Parks died in October 2005 at the age of 92.
As reported by Christopher Botta of Sports Business Journal in 2014:
On Aug. 31, 1994, Parks, then 81, was robbed and assaulted in her home in central Detroit. (Judge Damon) Keith called real estate developer Alfred Taubman, the owner of Riverfront Apartments, about finding a safer home for Parks. Taubman pledged to find the best home available.
When Ilitch read about Keith’s plan and Taubman’s promise in the newspaper, he called the judge and said he would pay for Parks’ housing for as long as necessary. (Parks passed away in 2005 at the age of 92). Keith served as the executor of the trust established for Parks’ housing.
It’s unknown exactly how long Ilitch paid for Parks’ rent. Parks dealt with fiscal woes during the final years of her life in Detroit and faced eviction from her home in 2002 (though her longtime friend and caregiver, Elaine Steele, told the Free Press in 2004 that those eviction notices were mistakenly filed). Riverfront Associates, owner of Riverfront Apartments, decided in 2004 to allow Parks to live there rent-free until her death.
The story also shows a picture of Keith with a copy of a $2,000 check that Ilitch’s Little Caesars Enterprises made toward Riverfront Apartments on Nov. 1, 1994.
“It’s important that people know what Mr. Mike Ilitch did for Ms. Rosa Parks because it’s symbolic of what he has always done for the people of our city,” Keith told the Sports Business Journal in 2014.
Ilitch passed away Friday at 87 years old, according to his company, Ilitch Holdings, and his family will honor him in a private funeral service.