A looming legal battle concerning the fate of the trailblazing player’s estate, no less his bodily remains, has emerged
Mark Guarino in Chicago
Thursday 19 February 2015 06.00 EST
When Ernie Banks died in late January, there was no doubt about the role he played in breaking down color barriers in baseball and for the athleticism that made him one of the game’s greatest players.
After a start in the Negro Leagues, in 1953 Banks became the first black player for the Chicago Cubs where he enshrined a legacy by logging 512 home runs in the record books, becoming an 11-time All-Star, and the National League’s Most Valuable Player two years in a row.
In awarding Banks the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, President Obama called the baseball hall of famer “an icon of my hometown” known for “his cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs will go all the way.” Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig noted after his death that Banks “was one of the special individuals who embodied [baseball’s] goodwill all his life.”
But three weeks after Banks’ death of a heart attack at age 83, a looming legal battle concerning the fate of his estate, no less his bodily remains, has emerged.
Banks, known as “Mr Cub” in Chicago where he was treated like royalty wherever he popped up in the city, was in the care of Regina Rice, a woman his family said on Monday coerced Banks into signing a new will in late October that transferred his estate in her name and gave her power of attorney. His twin sons Joey and Jerry Banks released a statement saying they plan to contest that will, which puts the fate of his estate in question.
“At the funeral of my father, I went out of my way to praise Ms Rice and her son for helping my father,” Joey Banks said in the statement to the Guardian. “What I did not know at the time is that for at least six months prior to my father’s death, in my opinion, she was using him, manipulating him and controlled him.”
According to court records, Rice filed the revamped will in probate court on 29 January, less than a week after his death. A Facebook account in Rice’s name describes her as a singer and “entertainer”. Searches show she also owns Ricer Enterprises, a talent agency in Plainfield, Illinois. Rice did not respond to an email request for comment.
In a video posted a day after Banks’ death, Rice describes herself as a “very good friend and confidante” of Banks. Late on Monday she sent a statement to WGN-TV that said she worked with Banks for 12 years.
“Ernie trusted me to carry out his wishes, some during his lifetime and others after his life. He made me promise to adhere to his wishes and I am determined to do just that,” she said.
Then there is the fate of Banks’ body, which remains unknown. Donnellan Funeral Home in Skokie, Illinois, reports they no longer have his body. Although family representatives have told local media he is buried in the historic Graceland Cemetery, located just a few blocks north of Wrigley Field, the person answering the phone there Tuesday said she was not aware of a Banks burial or internment. Larry Sloane, director of LF Sloan Consulting Group, the organization that manages Graceland, told the Guardian he “can’t say definitively” whether or not the body is there.
What is known is that Banks’s fourth wife Elizabeth Banks, from whom he was estranged at the time of his death, filed a petition in Cook County Probate Court to prevent Rice from cremating her husband’s remains.
“Our father never told us he wanted to be cremated and we find it very suspicious that Ms Rice, who claimed that she was taking excellent care of our father, now wants to have him cremated,” Jerry Banks said in a statement.
Jeremiah Reynolds, an attorney in Los Angeles who represents the estate of Michael Jackson, says that it is common for celebrities to have their estates and trusts challenge due to the high volume of people who crisscross their lives – “multiple ex-spouses, people involved with the celebrity over many years, people providing care, it just multiplies,” he says. “The more people there are, the more likely it will happen.”
He says that Illinois law requires caregivers to prove that the estate or trust holder independently approved the changes and not under fraud or duress.
“I don’t know how a caregiver does this unless they videotape and have psychotherapists interview Mr Banks to say he’s competent,” he says. “This is so difficult, I don’t know how [Rice] is going to overcome that.”
How much the Banks estate is worth is not yet known. Banks did not earn the millions of dollars that modern era players reap during their playing careers, but instead he remained with the Cubs on the payroll as a living ambassador of the team’s mythic past.
“Among people who care about the history of the game, he’s tremendously important,” says Ray Sauner, a sports economist at Clemson University. “Having someone like that attached to your baseball club matters a lot. There’s just not many players like that.”