Everyone knows Mike Ilitch as the wealthy pizza baron who owns the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, but when new Tigers General Manager Al Avila appeared on Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo’s television show today, he revealed something about Mr. I that most folks probably don’t know: Ilitch is a former professional baseball player.
Ilitch played four seasons of minor-league ball in the mid-1950s. He split the 1952 season between the Jamestown, NY Falcons, a Tigers affiliate, as chance would have it, and the unaffiliated Hot Springs, AR Bathers. He spent the entirety of the 1953 season with the unaffiliated Tampa, FL Smokers, where he was the starting second baseman and his .310 batting average was second-best on the team. In 1954, Ilitch divided his time between the Smokers and the unaffiliated Miami Beach/Greater Miami Flamingos in what would prove to be the Flamingos’ final season of existence. He continued to demonstrate an ability to hit for average, if not power (his sole home run of the season was just the second of his career to that point), finishing 1954 with a .324/.375/.400 line, the best of his career. 1955 was Ilitch’s final year as a professional baseball player. He appeared in just sixty-two games while playing for three different teams: the unaffiliated St. Petersburg, FL Saints, the Norfolk, VA Tars (Yankees), and the Charlotte, NC Hornets (Senators). Ilitch’s offense slipped in his final season, in which he hit his third career home run and batted .255/.328/.273 for the Tars (incomplete records from the other teams suggest this line is representative of his performance for the Saints and Hornets as well).
The knee injury that ended Ilitch’s playing career in 1955 probably explains the decline in his offensive production. Four years later, he and his wife opened the first Little Caesars Pizza restaurant. They bought the Red Wings in 1982 and the Tigers– from Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan– in 1992.