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Tigers by the tail.

Tom Monaghan is not only rich, famous and the owner of the best team in baseball to boot--he's also as modest as they make 'em. "I keep asking myself, 'What's so special about me?'" says Monaghan, shrugging, interviewed in the impressive Ann Arbor, Michigan, office building that serves as the center for his business enterprises. "And I don't think there is anything that's special. I think I'm pretty ordinary."

At least on the surface of things, most people would tend to disagree. If nothing else, Monaghan possesses perseverance in admirable and unlimited quantities. The Ann Arbor native grew up in an orphanage. He aspired to the priesthood until his expulsion for mischief-making. He made a fortune before he was 30 and spent every last dime. "A lot of times in my life I was what you would call a loser," Monaghan admits.

No one these days is calling this latter-day Charlie Brown a loser. The multimillionaire pizza king earned instant celebrity status last year when he bought an American League baseball club, the Detroit Tigers, that rewarded him a few short months later with a victor's World Series ring. Monaghan's triumph is even sweeter in view of all the setbacks this 48-year-old father of four daughters had to vanquish along the way.

Curiously, he has few regrets. "I'm glad I had them [the setbacks], but I wouldn't want to have them again," Monaghan says, chortling. "One of the important things that I have going for me is that I realize I can lose everything fast, because I've done it already in so many different ways. I tend to be appreciative of all I have."

Monaghan's early sorrows began when he was but four. His much-loved father, who doted on him, bled to death internally from an ulcer on Christmas Eve 1941. With characteristic charitableness, Monaghan says little about his mother, who first foisted him upon a German family that resented his presence and later incarcerated him in a Roman Catholic orphanage "for a year." He and his older brother, Jim, remained at St. Joseph's Home for Boys, Jackson, Michigan, for six years.

He chooses to overlook memories of strap-beatings at the hands of a Dickensian nun named Sister Ladislaus. He's repressed remembrances of countless poor, starchy meals and his unsettling feelings of inferiority to students in his parochial-school classes who had caring parents. He latched on to a caring nun, Sister Mary Bernarda, who became a surrogate mother to him and cheered his dreams of becoming "a ballplayer and and architect."

"Sister Bernarda was the greatest," Monaghan recalls, his friendly face beaming as he shows you the rosary the now deceased nun once gave him--a cherished possession that the Pope had personally blessed. "I [often] think of Sister Bernarda and whether she's watching me, because I always used to look for her approval. She had a great, kind face, and I just flourished."

Under her guidance Tom proved a survivor. Soon he discovered baseball and lived for both the Detroit Tiger broadcasts and the once yearly ball games he saw, courtesy of the Knights of Columbus, in Briggs Stadium. "To me, that team was bigger than life," he exults. "They were all all-stars to me: Hal New-houser, Hoot Evers--my favorite player--Hank Greenberg, Roy Cullenbine, Dizzy Trout, Birdie Tebbetts, Rudy York and that era."

He and his brother found themselves dumped once again when Monaghan was 12: this time in pleasant surroundings. His mother deposited the two boys on a farm in northern Michigan. In addition to his farm chores, Monaghan showed an aptitude for making money--jerking sodas and setting bowling pins for extra cash. His freshman year of high school was spent in a preparatory seminary, but his dream of the priesthood was shattered when he was dismissed for misbehaving.

"The monsignor who kicked me out died about a year ago," Monaghan says. "He probably did the right thing at the time, but I don't think he did the right thing. I thought I was as zealous as anybody at that seminary, [although] I did get into more mischief than most. I seemed to have a penchant for it: more energy, more restlessness. I never did anything serious like smoke. I really thought I'd be a good priest."

Following high-school graduation and a Marine Corps hitch, Monaghan pursued his love of architecture by attending college, but financial problems took him away from his studies. He wound up attending college six times at several southern-Michigan schools and never went beyond the status of freshman. But while struggling to make ends meet at the University of Michigan, he stumbled into a career. His brother, a mailman, bought a failing pizzeria, named Dominick's, that was on his route. Tom Monaghan put heart, soul and upward of 100 hours a week into the business, but Jim (now a Domino's consultant) soon tired of the grind and sold his share to his brother.

Business went poorly until the new owner came up with a formula that still works. He simplified the menu, limited the toppings and the pizza size and offered delivery service in record time. In addition, he experimented with cheeses and doughs until he had created a great-tasting pizza with nutritional pizazz. Today two slices of Domino's cheese pizza contain only 340 calories and provide significant daily-allowance portions of protein, calcium and iron.

Back in those early days, Monaghan not only minded the store but delivered his product, too. One evening he delivered a pizza to a dormitory at Central Michigan University. A dorm switchboard operator named Marge Zyback caught his eye. Six months later, Marge took Tom for better, worse and all the pizzas she could eat. Marge's beneficial influence on Tom included his previously shaky health habits. For her he gave up drinking, smoking and using any form of caffeine. Later he took up jogging and running in marathons--a practice that today gives him the trim appearance of a 30-year-old.

Husband and wife are different as night and day, a fact he readily admits. "We're opposites on almost everything you can think of, including religion," Monaghan says. "She doesn't know or care about sports, except now she's taking up baseball for the first time in her life. She's pretty much a domestic type of person. She isn't interested in success at all, which I am. She'd be just as happy or happier if I were a school-teacher or factory worker living in a three-bedroom ranch house."

Today Monaghan admits to fond memories of those first struggling days before his pizza business triumphed. What's more, even though he opened his 1,900th store recently, he still insists it might have been better had he stayed small. "Maybe I'd have been better off financially if I just had one store," he muses. "My first store was legendary. It became the busiest pizzeria in the country. I'd have been so much better off, and it would have been so much easier to stay in that one store and make a great store. It would be doing $5 or $6 million a year, easily $100,000 a week."

Monaghan made other early mistakes. He took on a partner when his brother left the fold; the man proved dishonest and incompetent. Monaghan next changed the name of his store from Dominick's to Domino's when the original owner wanted part of the action. The name change then cost him $1.5 million to successfully defend a suit by the owners of Domino Sugar, who had gone to court to force him to drop the name. And after things really boomed, and he began selling Domino's franchises like hot--er--pizzas, he overextended himself as late as 1969 and avoided bankruptcy only by the slimmest of margins, thanks to his willingness to again work 100-hour weeks until properity returned.

But by 1984, he had accumulated the wealth that would put him on a Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest men in America. True, he had failed to realize his dream of becoming an architect, but he had nonetheless obtained vicarious pleasure from becoming a financial angle to the University of Michigan's school of architecture. Moreover, he had purchased a Frank Lloyd Wright home outside Ann Arbor, and he had executed plans to build what local wags call "The Tower of Pizza"--a 30-story building based on Wright's plans for a skyscraper that combines beauty with function.

But deep down, the little boy in Monaghan chafed. That long buried dream of living a life in baseball's big leagues still remained. He could still hear the voice of the late Tiger broadcaster Harry Heilmann singing the praises of Monaghan's beloved Detroiters. So when the aging communications baron John Fetzer began considering plans to sell the Detroit franchise to some individual who would provide stable club ownership into the next century, Tom Monaghan put the same effort into acquiring the team he had given his pizza venture. After a three-hour meeting between Fetzer and Monaghan, the pizza franchiser's $53 million offer was accepted on a single condition: Fetzer did not want the story to leak to the press until the contract was signed.

"Mr. Fetzer and [Tiger president] Jim Campbell had said right from the beginning that if the story gets to the press, the whole deal is dead," says Monaghan. "We were doing everything in such secrecy it's unbelievable. We [even] had code names. But the way it turned out, more and more and more people had to know about it: lawyers, bankers, people in the Tiger organization, my board of directors, my family." As a member of Domino's board of directors, one of those in the know was the famed University of Michigan football coach, Bo Schembechler.

The deal looked closed when all at once a ghost of Monaghan's materialized. In a January '82 interview with a Kalamazoo Gazette sportswriter, Jack Moss, Monaghan had expressed his long held desire to purchase the Tigers. All at once Moss, hoping to land an exclusive, materialized at the Domino's headquarters. When Monaghan frantically denied all, Moss shrugged and said he was off "to interview your friend, Bo."

Afraid Schembechler might inadvertently spill the beans, Monaghan quickly called the coach. "What do I do?" asked Monaghan. "He might write something about me that mentions the Tigers, anyhow. If it gets into the papers before Mr. Fetzer [announces the news], I don't know what the heck's going to happen." Schembechler was unruffled. "I'll just tell him," said the coach.

Time passed without anything hitting the papers. The deal was closed. "And then the night before the announcement I called Moss." Monaghan says, chuckling. As a reward for his fidelity, the secret sharer had become the first member of the press to get the story.

Tom Monaghan's purchase was instantly rewarded. The Tigers won the first 9 games of the season and set a record for the best 40-game start (35-5) in baseball history. Their pitching ace, Jack Morris, tossed a no-hitter in April. Sparky Anderson managed the team brilliantly. A newly acquired relief pitcher, Willie Hernandez, saved 32 games enroute to capturing the covered MVP and Cy Young Award trophies in the American League. And the Tigers buried the Kansas City Royals in the play-offs and thrashed the San Diego Padres in the World Series. The club made an estimated profit of $8 million in a year many baseball owners took red-ink baths.

Monaghan is reasonably confident that the Tigers can repeat in 1985. "I think we've got as good a chance as anybody," says Monaghan, "but it [the pennant race] should be closer. We haven't made any great changes. I believe in defensive baseball. I think that's the reason the Tigers did so well. When you've got a Gold Glove winner at catcher in Lance Parrish, a Gold Glove winner at shortstop in Alan Trammell, a Gold Glove winner at second in Lou Whitaker, and in Chet Lemon, a better center fielder than guys who have won the Gold Glove, that's great defense up the middle, maybe the best ever."

Of course, Tom Monaghan is too humble to mention that it also helps to have a good man at the top as well. Too many powerful teams have performed miserably in the standings at least partially through the meddling of owners. "I'm not trying to get that involved," admits Monaghan.

The prediction here is that the Tigers will once again squeak by talentladen Toronto, the free-agent-heavy Baltimore Orioles and the overpaid New York Yankees.

Somewhere, someplace, Sister Bernarda is beaming!
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Title Annotation:Detroit Tigers' owner Tom Monaghan
Author:Nuwer, Hank
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1985
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