The Chicago Syndicate: Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind the #Indy500 @IMS
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Friday, May 26, 2017

Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind the #Indy500 @IMS

Editor's note: Much of the information that follows is from the book "Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind the Indy 500" by Brock Yates, which was published in 2006 by A Thunder's Mouth Press

As the son of a Chicago South Sider, I learned long ago that if you want to get something done, "It takes a guy who knows a guy."

Michael J. "Umbrella Mike" Boyle was just such a guy.

One of most colorful and controversial labor leaders in the history of this country, Boyle ruled the Windy City's most-powerful electricians' union for more than a half century.

In a time when corruption and lawlessness gripped the city, Mike Boyle walked the fine line between crooked politicians and the Chicago Mob. He did it all the way to the pinnacle of the American labor movement, constantly doing it in a shroud of mystery.

When he wasn't in Chicago dominating union politics, he was racing at Indianapolis with his Boyle Racing Team, winning the Indianapolis 500 three times.

The early years

Born in rural Minnesota in June of 1879, Michael J. Boyle was one of 11 children raised on a potato farm. His early years were spent in parochial schools until he joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) at the age of 16.

By 1905 he became certified as a full-time electrician for the Chicago Tunnel Company, the firm responsible for the construction and management of some 60 miles of underground tunnels that linked Loop businesses -- 40 feet below the streets of downtown Chicago.

Boyle joined the IBEW in Chicago 1906, and by 1909 was a business manager for Local 134. By the 1920s he rose to the position of vice president within the local and ruled IBEW Local 134 with an iron fist, eventually amassing a union membership of 10,000 steadfastly loyal electricians.

Early in his career, "Umbrella Mike" Boyle reportedly earned his nickname for his ability to gather "tributes" or "donations," if you will, from contractors and other citizens who sought his much-needed support for various business projects.

Boyle would simply hang his umbrella on the edge of the bar at Johnson's Saloon, his unofficial headquarters on West Madison Street, when he entered early in the evening. Those requesting his favors or guidance would then drop cash in the unattended umbrella. At the end of the evening Boyle would then retrieve the cash-laden umbrella on his way out.

When once confronted on how he was able to amass a grand total of $350,000 on a weekly paycheck of $35, Boyle replied, "It was with great thrift."

Rising to the top in labor

The early 1900s was a period of great unrest between the corporate owners of American industry and the American worker. Long hours and low pay, coupled with abuse of the worker's rights, gave rise for the need of unions to protect the rights of working men and women.

As the country's industrial base prospered, workers across American united under the guidance of men who showed no fear in the face of overwhelming odds. Mike Boyle was such a man.

In one of the clearest examples of Boyle's power, in January of 1937 he yanked 450 of the 800 city-employed electrical workers off the job at 8 p.m., shutting off 94,558 municipal street lights, all the traffic lights in Chicago's Loop and put 38 of the 55 drawbridges that cross the Chicago River, in the up position.

Automobiles, streetcars and pedestrians were trapped, with the city's police force helpless as the power to their telephones was shut off, too. Two hours and 40 minutes later, Boyle acquiesced and turned the city back on, all with a simple phone call.

Racing at Indianapolis

Mike Boyle was a sportsman at heart who loved competition. That was what drew him to Indy-car racing. Once Boyle made up his mind that he wanted to go racing, he pursued his quest with abandon. Starting in 1926, Boyle first got his feet wet with a single-car entry in the 13th running of Indianapolis 500. In his first showing at Indianapolis, the No. 36 Boyle Valve Miller driven by Cliff Woodbury overcame a flat tire to capture third place, earning a purse of $5,000.

Over the next seven years Boyle entered a total of 15 cars in Indianapolis 500 competition with the best finish being a seventh place. He always entered top-notch equipment and hired the best drivers, such as Woodbury, Ralph Hepburn, Billy Arnold, Peter DePaolo and Lou Moore.

In 1934, all of Boyle's efforts came to fruition when "Wild Bill" Cummings in the No. 7 Boyle Products Special/Miller took the checkered flag in record time, earning a record purse of $29,725.

Having won the Indianapolis 500 only made "Umbrella Mike" thirst for more.

The next four years saw him enter 13 cars in the Memorial Day Classic, garnering three top-five finishes.

In 1939, having tired of trying to wring out more speed from the oversized Millers and Stevens-Offy he owned, Boyle reached across the Atlantic Ocean to a tiny Italian automobile company and without fanfare quietly purchased a Maserati 8CTF. The car was shipped to Boyle Racing headquarters in Indianapolis.

There Boyle turned the car over to his crew-chief, Harry "Cotton" Henning, a former riding mechanic. Henning was greatly respected by his peers and along with Boyle's money was able to outfit a pristinely kept racing operation that was second to none.

Then Boyle hired arguably the best "shoe" in the business, Indiana native Wilbur Shaw.

The marriage between Shaw and the Boyle Special Maserati was magic, dominating both the 1939 and 1940 Indianapolis 500s. Boyle's combined winnings for the two successive victories was $58,100. In addition, Boyle's other driver, the legendary Ted Horn, copped successive fourth place finishes to add another $9,325.

Following his two-year domination of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mike Boyle raced again in 1941 and 1946, with the best results being a sixth and third-place finishes, respectively. But the war years took their toll on Boyle and he left Indy-car racing for good after 1946, while in his mid-60s.

During the course of his racing career, it was never clear where the money was coming from that funded one of the most well-equipped racing operations in the business. "Umbrella Mike's" livery on the cars was seemingly changing from season to season. Boyle Products, Boyle Valve, Boyle Racing Headquarters, the IBEW -- all these names were seen on the side of Mike Boyle's cars.

After retiring from Indy-car racing, "Umbrella Mike" still dominated union politics in Chicago through his role as a vice president of Local 134 of the IBEW. He died from heart failure in 1958 while in Miami Beach, Fla.

The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on the filing of Boyle's estate in probate court. It was revealed that his entire estate -- which included a 40-acre ranch in Texas -- was valued at only $19,000.

It would appear that "Umbrella Mike" left us with one more mystery.

Thanks to William LaDow

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