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Pod Corner: 'Dough Dynasty'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Super Bowl is tomorrow, and for many viewers at home, it is not about the football or even the halftime show or the commercials. It is about the food. You may not be surprised to hear that Super Bowl Sunday is one of the biggest days of the year for pizza sales in America, but maybe you don't know this. A large portion of the money that Americans will spend on pizza this weekend will wind up in one state - Michigan, the chain pizza capital of the world. That's right. The headquarters for Domino's, Little Caesars, Jet's and Hungry Howie's all started and remain in southeast Michigan. Little Caesars is the official pizza sponsor of the NFL, but the connection between chain pizza and professional sports runs a whole lot deeper than that.

The cheesy history of American chain pizza is documented in the podcast series Dough Dynasty from Michigan Public. The co-hosts are April Baer and Laura Weber-Davis, who join me here today. Hey there.

LAURA WEBER-DAVIS, BYLINE: Hi.

APRIL BAER, BYLINE: Hey there.

DETROW: So when we're talking pizza and when we're talking professional sports, where should we begin?

BAER: The most obvious answer is during the era known as the pizza wars, when advertising by these companies just completely exploded - the late '80s in the early '90s.

WEBER-DAVIS: Right. Exactly. So, like, sporting events get eyeballs. Eyeballs, watch commercials. And, well, pizza jumped into the fray.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two great pizzas for one low price.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pizzas to fall in love with.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hot, delicious pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Pizza, pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Dripping with pure mozzarella cheese.

WEBER-DAVIS: Just dripping with it. But this is really a tale of two pizza kings When they were just wee pepperoni princes. It all began when the founders of Domino's and Little Caesars were just kids. Before they were into pizza, Tom Monaghan of Domino's and Mike Ilitch of Little Caesars grew up loving the Detroit Tigers. Monaghan, he wrote in his autobiography that actually reading about the Detroit Tigers games in the newspaper in the 1940s brought him joy during some pretty dark days living in an orphanage.

BAER: And Little Caesars founder Mike Ilitch, a Detroit native, actually played some minor league ball for the Tigers farm team in the early 1950s. So both Ilitch and Monahan had this emotional connection to this team.

DETROW: OK. So I love baseball, and I also love pizza. But when it came to the two of them, how did baseball and pizza blend together?

WEBER-DAVIS: I would say it's more like pizza blended sports on in.

DETROW: Like a sports topping on the pizza.

BAER: (Laughter).

WEBER-DAVIS: Exactly. Exactly. Both the guys had the idea to get into pizza around the same time, right around 1960, and got in on that hot trend of franchising. And then by the '80s, Americans had really fallen in love with pizza. It was definitely here to stay. And both Domino's and Little Caesars were just doing great on the national stage with a lot of rapid expansion.

WEBER-DAVIS: Yeah, exactly. And so Tom Monaghan and Mike Ilitch, they were becoming really, really wealthy.

BAER: And both these founders started spending all that money. They both go after the ownership of the Detroit Tigers at the same time. Tom Monaghan wins the bid in 1983.

WEBER-DAVIS: Yeah. So we talked to a veteran Detroit Free Press journalist. He was a sports reporter in the '80s. His name was Bill McGraw.

BILL MCGRAW: Most owners, you never see them.

WEBER-DAVIS: He says Tom Monaghan was a bit of an enigma in the press box.

MCGRAW: Monaghan, on the first day of spring training, was not only at spring training, but he was dressed in a Tiger uniform, fulfilling one of the childhood fantasies of his and many young Michiganders. He played catch with Al Kaline. And that just was so out of the ordinary. He came across - while he was a tremendously successful businessman, he came across as a little goofy.

DETROW: He might call that goofy, but I just want to say that it's absolutely what I would do if I bought a professional sports team.

(LAUGHTER)

WEBER-DAVIS: Well, you're not alone. I mean, maybe it doesn't seem that strange to us, but it was for this business guy to be on the field of Tiger Stadium that he owned now. But he was out there living his boyhood fantasy. And so in 1984, the Tigers won the World Series.

BAER: And, Scott, like, you maybe know, that win was a huge deal with fans in Detroit.

DETROW: Absolutely.

BAER: The '84 Tigers, people still talk about them as one of the best teams assembled in the game. And at the time, this was the first championship for Detroit since 1968. And on the night of the World Series win, the city just loses its mind.

WEBER-DAVIS: Yeah.

BAER: OK. So in our podcast, we covered that moment, which was a really big one for Monaghan in multiple ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: The pitch - he swings on this, a fly ball to left. Here comes Herndon. He's there. He's got it. The Tigers are the champions of 1984.

BAER: And just like that, the electricity in the city explodes. The celebration goes on for hours.

WEBER-DAVIS: But at some point, things outside get a little rowdy. Here's reporter Paul Eisenstein at the scene for NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PAUL EISENSTEIN: The fans began pounding on the hood, smashing windshields. And from there, the situation quickly got out of control.

WEBER-DAVIS: A riot led by white suburbanites takes over the streets surrounding the stadium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EISENSTEIN: A half-dozen police cars were rolled over, set ablaze as fans pelted police with beer bottles and stones and anything else they could find.

WEBER-DAVIS: The stadium goes on lockdown, leaving players, their families, the press, some fans stuck inside. And maybe you're like, OK, but what does this have to do with pizza? Well, what do you do when you're stuck somewhere with a bunch of hungry people and you need to feed the masses? You order pizza. And in this case, if you're a Detroit Tiger, you know a guy, Tom Monaghan. The team owner also happens to own Dominoes and a helicopter. Monaghan calls up his pilot and is like, get over here. We have an issue. The chopper lands on second base, and then Monaghan sends him off to Ypsilanti to go and secure dozens of Domino's pizzas for these world champions. The helicopter flies back to the city, feasibly in fewer than 30 minutes, and they make the ultimate delivery.

DETROW: I cannot picture the scene. I can - this is so over the top.

BAER: I mean, he's kind of the Elon Musk of his time, you know. Why not? Let's do it. And, Scott, remember - it's the '80s.

DETROW: It was.

WEBER-DAVIS: OK. But the story of the day was really about the championship, I guess. So Monaghan, though this championship was a big deal for baseball, he actually credits that win and those Tigers for making Domino's a truly household name.

BAER: Meanwhile, Mike Ilitch, the father of Little Caesars, was still craving a sports team of his own. He couldn't have the Tigers, but he could totally have the Dead Wings.

DETROW: The Dead Wings? That is not the name of the hockey team.

WEBER-DAVIS: (Laughter).

BAER: Oh, I don't know about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE ILITCH: You know, publicly, they're called the Dead Wings.

BAER: As you may infer from what Mike Ilitch said, the team was not doing well. The Red Wings' owner at the time, Bruce Norris, was getting booed by fans at games. And Mike Ilitch is thinking, this could be done better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ILITCH: We weren't sure if we could afford it, but I said, I'm going to try, Marian. And so they had a couple other bids in there, but they decided to go with us. And we were lucky. It was timing. And I never dreamt we'd be able to afford the team.

MCGRAW: And he had a sterling reputation when he bought the Red Wings. In fact, Red Wing fans have been described as like a cult. You know, the Red Wings have been around since the '20s. It's a real intense hockey atmosphere. And they had nothing to cheer for for a long time. And so this guy who has already had a track record in sports in Detroit buys the Red Wings, and Red Wing fans were ecstatic.

WEBER-DAVIS: When Mike Ilitch bought the team, he was basically like, look, I'm not afraid to spend money on winning, whatever it costs. I'm going to dump money into this thing for championships and trophies and show this city what team ownership is all about.

BAER: And he completely turned the team around. And here's the real twist - a few years after that 1984 World Series when Tom Monaghan decided to sell the Tigers to the Ilitch family. So today in Detroit, the Ilitch family still holds both teams. There are Little Caesars logos all over the facilities for both the Tigers and the Red Wings.

WEBER-DAVIS: So the Red Wings, they actually now play in a new facility, downtown Detroit. And the arena is actually called - Scott, can you guess?

DETROW: I'm going to put one guess here, perhaps Little Caesars Arena?

WEBER-DAVIS: Yes, Little Caesars Arena. OK. Some Michiganders call it the Pizzarena. So really, the love affair between professional sports and pizza, it doesn't start with football or the Super Bowl. It began, as far as American chain pizza is concerned, with baseball and hockey.

BAER: Sports, pizza, money - it's basically an American love story, Scott.

DETROW: It's my favorite food and my two favorite sports. That's April Baer, one of the hosts of Dough Dynasty.

BAER: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

DETROW: Wait. What?

BAER: Before we go, Scott.

DETROW: Yes.

BAER: Every single conversation we've had for this series, we need you to tell us how you like your pizza.

WEBER-DAVIS: Yes. How do you take your pizza, Scott Detrow? America needs to know.

DETROW: Oh, my goodness. I'm going to answer your question. I will start off like a politician. I truly love all forms of pizza at different points of time. Absolute, absolute, like, platonic ideal of pizza, when I think about pizza in my head, I am thinking about crispier thin crust pizza with a lot of pepperoni on it and just the level of grease that, like, you've got kind of the grease pools...

WEBER-DAVIS: The cup, yeah. The cup.

DETROW: ...In the pepperoni, as that is my favorite kind of pizza.

WEBER-DAVIS: Now you're talking.

DETROW: That's April Baer and Laura Weber-Davis, co-hosts of the Dough Dynasty podcast from Michigan Public. Special thanks to podcast editor Rachel Ishikawa and producer April Van Buren. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

April Baer
April Baer is the new host of Michigan Radio’s Stateside talk show.