Published February 10, 2017
Before the Stanley Cups, before the World Series appearances, there were the Detroit Caesars.
Before Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, there was Ronnie Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes and Tex Collins.
Before the NHL and MLB, there was the APSPL—the American Professional Slo-Pitch League.
The Caesars owner was the Steinbrenner of the APSPL. He spent big bucks to hire the best softball players in the midwest.
Now, you might think of softball players as overweight guys with beer bellies slamming home runs left and right and needing an oxygen tank halfway to second base.
You’d be right.
But in order to win championships in professional softball, you still need the best overweight guys with beer bellies. And the Caesars owner made sure of that.
They say that two things are seldom realized: your worst fears and your wildest dreams.
Michael Ilitch had built a pizza empire but he was, in his heart, a frustrated baseball player. His wildest dreams meant that he would one day play in the big leagues.
So Ilitch set out to live vicariously through other professional athletes. The Caesars—named after his pizza stores—were the first team to make Ilitch, in an indirect way, a champion athlete.
Ilitch, a then-48 year-old rags-to-riches entrepreneur, was the owner of the Caesars—and his softball team powered its way through the APSPL to win consecutive championships in 1977 and 1978.
The aforementioned players live on forever in Detroit Caesars lore. There are websites about the team. The Caesars are a delicious footnote in Detroit sports history.
They played at Memorial Field in what was then known as East Detroit (Eastpointe now). To add some spice to Caesars games, Ilitch signed former Tigers Jim Northrup and Norm Cash as players in 1978.
Even back then, Mike Ilitch was signing big names. It was the start of his fetish for the high profile, superstar signings that dotted his ownership with the Red Wings and the Tigers.
I’m not certain, but I bet that Ilitch was the best owner in the APSPL.
But despite his success in pro softball, Ilitch was still largely a low-profile guy when his name started being bandied about as the potential new owner of the Red Wings in late-1981.
Ilitch at the time was known as a pizza baron—not as the championship-winning owner of the Detroit Caesars. Ilitch probably sold more Little Caesars pizzas in a week than the number of fans who went to his softball games during an entire season. If I’m exaggerating, it’s not by a lot.
The Red Wings had been owned by the Norris family for a quarter century, but the franchise had been in poor shape for several years when Ilitch inquired about its availability. The pizza baron and ex-minor league baseball player would have preferred to buy the Tigers, but John Fetzer hadn’t put the team up for sale.
Bruce Norris, however, was willing—indeed, even eager—to listen to potential buyers of his hockey team.
The Red Wings were a mess in the summer of 1982 when Ilitch was announced as the new owner. The team had qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs just once in the previous 12 years.
The price tag? Eight million dollars.
Today $8 million might buy you a third line forward or a utility infielder. But in 1982 bucks, eight million was a lot of money.
If Ilitch couldn’t have the Tigers, then the Red Wings, he figured, were the next best thing. So he scraped up the pizza dough to make the purchase from Norris.
Ilitch, when he bought the Red Wings, didn’t have Yzerman. He didn’t have Lidstrom. Heck, he really didn’t even have Kris Draper.
The dearth of talent on that 1982-83 Red Wings team was fascinating in its breadth. There were so few players that you’d pay to see, that Ilitch gave away cars in between periods to put some fannies into the seats. He ran other promotions designed to distract you from the disaster taking place on the ice.
It’s almost forgotten now, but Ilitch’s first Red Wings hire was probably his best Red Wings hire—ever.
Jimmy Devellano was a squeaky-voiced rink rat who helped build what would become a dynasty with the New York Islanders, first as the team’s scouting director and eventually as assistant GM to the great Bill Torrey.
The Isles had just won their third straight Stanley Cup when Ilitch tabbed Jimmy D to be the first GM of Ilitch’s Red Wings ownership.
Devellano took over what was, essentially, an expansion team in Detroit. That’s how far the Red Wings had fallen under the Norris family.
Ilitch hired Devellano, stayed out of Jimmy’s way, and let him do in Detroit what he had done on Long Island.
It was Devellano who hired Jacques Demers as coach in 1986, believing that Jacques was the right guy to coach the young talent that Jimmy D was cobbling together in Detroit. Demers was; the Red Wings made the Cup semi-finals in each of Jacques’ first two seasons.
And it was Devellano, by now Executive Vice President, who went to Ilitch in the summer of 1993 and told the owner that he had this old friend in hockey who could be gotten as coach. A man who Devellano first came to know when Jimmy worked for the St. Louis Blues as a young scout while his friend was the Blues coach.
That’s how Scotty Bowman became coach of the Red Wings.
Mike Ilitch wanted to win at all costs—literally and figuratively. No name was too big; no check was too expensive to write.
It worked with the Red Wings, to the tune of four Stanley Cups. The list of players who came through Joe Louis Arena during the Ilitch ownership reads like a mini Hockey Hall of Fame.
No less than nine of the players listed recently in the Top 100 in NHL history played for the 2001-02 Red Wings—Ilitch’s third Cup-winning team. That’s astounding.
Ilitch drafted some of them but he signed a whole bunch of others as free agents. It was the era before the salary cap. And Mike Ilitch’s checkbook was whipped out more than excuses for being late.
It worked with the Red Wings but it didn’t quite with the Tigers, which Ilitch purchased in 1992.
The brass ring eluded Ilitch in baseball. I think he’d have swapped the four Cups for one World Series title but it wasn’t meant to be. The Tigers went to two WS (2006 and 2012) but did pratfalls in both, to the tune of a 1-8 combined record.
In one of his last public appearances, at the signing of pitcher Jordan Zimmermann a year ago November, Ilitch said, “I’m tired of just getting to the World Series. I want to win the damn thing.”
Mike Ilitch is dead. The World Series quest will go down as another dream of his unrealized.
But he built a pizza empire, won his softball and hockey championships, poured money into the city and made millions of folks proud to say they were from Detroit.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in a statement released this evening, said of Ilitch’s passing, “The Red Wings have lost the consummate owner, the National Hockey League has lost a cherished friend and passionate builder, Detroit sports has lost a legend and the city of Detroit has lost not only a devoted native son but a visionary and driving force in the rebirth of downtown.”
Mike Ilitch just wanted to win. He wanted to win in professional softball. He wanted to win in the NHL. He wanted to win in MLB and he wanted to win for the city of Detroit. His commitment to doing so was unparalleled by any team owner in the city’s history. He may not always have spent his money wisely, but who ever has, when the ultimate prize was considered the be-all, end-all?
“When we hired Scotty Bowman, everything changed,” Ilitch once said.
Everything changed in the summer of 1982.
It was the best $8 million any man has ever spent.