Good-bye, “Mr. I”

Pizza mogul, sports-team owner and entertainment magnate Mike Ilitch passed away last Friday, February 10, 2017.  I’ve worked at Little Caesars’ corporate headquarters for the last eighteen months but sadly, never had the opportunity to meet Mike Ilitch in person.

Fortunately, not having the opportunity to meet “Mr. I” didn’t preclude me from hearing great stories about him, firsthand, from his son Chris who serves as CEO of Ilitch Holdings.

It was at a day-long internal conference about a year ago and I had the good fortune to be seated at the same table as Chris. During lunch I asked him the question “I understand your dad was both a minor league ball player and a Marine. Those are both young men’s activities. How did he do both? What was the timeline on that?”.  What follows is the gist of the remarkable story Chris told to me. Note: I didn’t record the conversation so it’s not word for word, but it is as accurate as I can be about something told to me a year ago.

Mike Ilitch was a very good baseball player in high school. So good in fact that he enjoyed an open-invitation to workout after school with the Tigers whenever they were in town.

Upon his graduating, the Tigers offered a contract to Mike to which he replied “I want a signing bonus”. The Tigers responded with an offer of a $5,000 signing bonus. Mike countered with “I want a $10,000 signing bonus, or I’m going to join the Marine Corps.”  The Tigers didn’t budge. At this point in the story, Chris Ilitch said that his dad, while telling him this story looked at Chris and said “first big mistake I ever made.”

The year was 1948 and Mike shipped off to bootcamp. Following bootcamp he was assigned to duty in Florida. Mike’s ability at baseball didn’t go unnoticed and he ended up playing ball for his unit against the teams from other units.

In 1950, the Korean War broke out. Mike went to his commanding officer and asked to be shipped out to Korea. The C.O. was fond of his winning baseball team and even more fond of its star player and thus told Ilitch “You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right here and playing ball.”.

As time passed, Ilitch felt bad about the young marines that passed through the base on their way to Korea. He wanted to do his duty and so time and again he appealed to the C.O. for orders to Korea and again and again the request was denied.

One thing was already apparent in the young Ilitch: He did not give up easily. After repeated requests, his C.O. finally relented and Ilitch received orders for Korea. After traveling to San Diego by train, Mike boarded a ship, a troop transport, bound for Korea.  Amphibious troop transport ships have a distinguishing feature in that the hull is comparatively “flat bottomed” and as a result do not cut smoothly through the water. In short, it was a rough ride. For nearly a week the marines were cramped below deck, rolling, swaying and… vomiting. At this point, once again, Chris said that his father told him “second big mistake I ever made.”.

One day land came into view on the horizon. Ilitch thought “well, this is it. I’m going into combat.”  However as the ship drew closer to land and docked, it turned out it wasn’t Korea at all, but Hawaii. The general in charge of the Marine Corps base on Hawaii had heard there were a couple of young stellar ballplayers on the ship, one of which was Ilitch, and ordered them off the ship, giving them new orders to Hawaii. The troop transport continued on to Korea without Mike. Ilitch spent the remainder of his four year tour playing baseball in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Upon returning home to Detroit, he approached the Tigers to let them know he was back and asked if they still wanted him to play for them. They did. Ilitch said “before, you offered me a $5,000 signing bonus.” The response was the Tigers organization was “you’re four years older now. The signing bonus is $3,500” to which Ilitch quickly replied “I’ll take it!” (he was learning…).

While in the minors, Ilitch rode the team bus all across the country. In many of the small towns he noticed there was nowhere to get pizza, a treat he liked very much. He thought to himself “if this baseball thing doesn’t work out, I think I’m going into the pizza business.”

On the field, Ilitch thrived. He batted over .300, which for a shortstop is excellent. Never one to “wait” for things to happen, Mike rather audaciously called the Tigers general manager and demanded to know why he wasn’t being called up to “the bigs”. “I’m killing the ball down here. Why am I not being called up?”

On another team or at another time, Mike probably would have been called up to the parent team, but at the time, the Tigers’ shortstop was a fellow named Harvey Kuenn, who had just broken in with the Tigers during Ilitch’s last year in the Marine Corps. True, Mike was hitting over .300 in the minors, but Kuenn batted .325 during his rookie year with the big club and was two years younger than Ilitch. Though never elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame, Kuenn was one of those players “on the bubble” – in the discussion, but never quite making it into “the Hall”.  In short, the Tigers “were set” at shortstop.

Had it not been for the twist of fate that the Tigers had a shortstop who could smoke the ball to all fields, Ilitch almost certainly would have enjoyed a career as a big league ballplayer and things would have been quite different as a result.