DG MARTIN COLUMN: The Claiborne Brothers – Jack and Slug

When I lived in Charlotte during the final days of the last century, two of the most important people there had the last name of Claiborne.

D.G. Martin

Jack Claiborne wrote charming and provocative columns and important news stories for The Charlotte Observer. His younger brother Slug was the owner of popular and profitable restaurants in Charlotte and, for a time, all over the Carolinas.

The brothers were born less than a year apart, but so different it was often hard to believe they were any kin at all. Both men are subjects of a new book, “Charlotte, the Slugger, and Me: Coming-of-Age Story of a Southern City and Two Tenacious Brothers,” written by Jack.

Until their father died, the boys grew up on a struggling family farm in southeastern Mecklenburg County. Then, in 1936, the family, including an older brother and sisters, moved into the Elizabeth section of Charlotte where they were within walking distance of Elizabeth School, Piedmont Junior High School and Central High School. Both boys thrived, Jack as a student and Slug as a popular student leader and athlete.

Slug was known as Jimmy until, as Jack Claiborne relates in his book, someone noticed that Jimmy looked like the character “Sluggo,” who appeared in the daily comic strip “Nancy,” and, according to the book, “almost overnight everyone else referred to him as Sluggo and later simply Slug. “The name Slug stuck to him like skin. We didn’t know it at the time, but that nickname was the greatest gift he ever got — and one he didn’t seek.”

The boys made money however they could, including picking up empty soft drink bottles at baseball games and other events, earning a dime a crate. Once when Jack was carrying a nearly full crate to where Slug had gathered a handful of empties, Jack spilled the crate, and “the slugger looked at me in disgust and shouted, ‘you don’t carry the crate to the bottles! You carry the bottles to the crate, dummy!’ His words cut deeply. I was publicly shamed. As I gathered the broken glass, I could sense the eyes in the grandstand watching and felt the full sting of Slug’s reproach. Though I had long thought I was inferior to Slug in personality and athleticism, I had always considered myself his superior in intellect and reliability. His rebuke caused me to doubt even that slim advantage.”

Jack recovered and soon got a job posting scores of baseball games to send to the newspaper. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was preparing to become not a baseball player but a sportswriter.”

In 1941, as World War II, approached, masses of soldiers gathered in Charlotte for training. As Jack and Slug were watching them pass, one of them called out, “Hey boy. Where is a good place to eat around here?”

Slug shot back, “Here.”

“Within minutes the Slugger had our living room lined two deep and soldiers waiting to get to our mother’s table.

“The evening went so well that within days a wooden sign went up in our front yard saying, meals twenty-five cents. The Slugger’s first venture into food service had been a success.”

The book follows the lives of Slug and Jack through their great successes and disappointments. Slug died in 2012 at age 79. Jack lives in the Elizabeth neighborhood where he grew up.

Finally, the book is a biography of the city of Charlotte as it grew from a very small city in World War II to an important metropolitan center.

A well-drawn map puts the boys’ home, schools, church and more in perspective, enhancing a reader’s ability to follow the narrative.

The new book is easy to recommend. Jack knows how to tell a story. He writes smoothly and beautifully, making reading his work a treat.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”