When Dan Varner and I started a baseball league for 120 kids in Detroit in 1997, just about everybody gave us the same advice: “You should ask Mike Ilitch for money.” We did, and the Tigers were good to us throughout the years, including helping to make the old Tiger Stadium site into the new home for Detroit PAL, which now serves 1,500 kids each year in baseball alone. I never talked to Mike Ilitch in all that time, although I did see him act in ways that left a lasting impression on me.
According to family lore, handed down to me by two of my uncles who were regulars at Tom’s Tavern for 50 years or so, Mike Ilitch used to go to Tom’s for a beer after a day of selling aluminum siding in the late 1950’s, along with two other “tin men,” Charlie Jones and Bill Bonds. Tom’s Tavern, pictured above, may be Detroit’s longest standing blighted building. It looks the same today as it did when I was a kid in the 80’s, easily earning its designation as one of the “8 grittiest bars in America.” So it was with some skepticism that I listened to stories about the man who built an empire that started out at Tom’s.
As the story goes, he went to the bar’s owner, Tom Lucas, for help one day. Tom was always a sweetheart around ladies, treating each one at his bar like they were on a date together, and a philanthropist around kids, handing out one dollar bills like Tic Tac’s. He was a bit more unpredictable with men, part easy-going bartender and part irate bouncer, and you never knew what you’d get. When a young Mike Ilitch asked for $5,000 to start a pizzeria, he got the latter. Tom told him to get lost. “Bah! There’s no money in pizza!” he dismissed him curtly.
Mr. Ilitch found the money somewhere else, and his buddy Charlie Jones went on to become an integral part of running the Little Caesar’s empire and remained a regular at Tom’s through the years. Bill Bonds became an iconic newscaster in Detroit who made semi-annual stops at Tom’s as he waged his own battles with alcoholism. Mike Ilitch never returned, as far as I know–until the day of Tom Lucas’s funeral, a cold winter day in 1991, when Mr. Ilitch and his wife spent the day at Tom’s funeral and burial, followed by a good Irish wake for an old Greek man. Mr. Ilitch had an empire to run, but he spent the day celebrating the life of the man who refused to give him the loan he needed to get a start. I was fresh out of college at the time without much real responsibilities, yet struggled to give as much time to the funeral as he did.
A few years later, I took a job selling ice cream for Mr. Ilitch at Red Wings’ games, often in the section that was home to his suite. He usually sat alone in the front of the suite, stoically watching game after game. At least once each game, I would give him the cool-guy nod of the head, subtly offering him a cone. He always shook me off, not wanting to be bothered with interruptions. Never a word was exchanged between us. I got the feeling like he didn’t see me after a while, despite my best intentions to give him a free cone in gratitude for the greatest job of my life.
When the Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 1997, Mr. Ilitch gave Stanley Cup rings to every member of his organization—not just the top brass or the middle management, but the ushers and beer vendors and me. I wore that ring with such pride for years you would have thought I actually scored a goal in the Cup finals.
This week Mr. Ilitch is being remembered for all the huge, headlines-grabbing things he’s done. I think his success was due in part to how he honored people who helped him along the way.