Zenith doesn’t have the greatest reputation among collectors. If the late-80s and early-90s are universally referred to as the “junk wax era”, maybe we can label the mid to late 90s, the “gimmick age of trading cards”. Similar to the comic book industry plastering all their covers with foil and holograms in the early-90s, baseball card companies were introducing all sorts of new technology to keep collector’s interests. Some of it worked extremely well, a lot did not.
1995 Zenith was Pinnacle’s first step into the “high-end” market. As Pinnacle’s #1 supporter, even I will admit that the first two years of Zenith left a lot to be desired. Sure, the card stock was as thick as any card on the market and the design featured tons of foil but it seems as if Pinnacle laid their foundation in the high-end market and didn’t put much effort into selecting good photographs or creating interesting inserts.
After a lackluster debut, Zenith came back in 1996 and added Artist’s Proof chase cards seeded once in every 36 packs. This added a little extra bang for your buck as a box buster but the cards were still bland and the photography selection was lazy at best. At this rate, Zenith would never be able to compete with Upper Deck’s SPx or Topps’ Bowman’s Best Atomic Refractors, both very flashy products and high-end chase cards.
In 1997, Zenith had to do something to make a name for themselves in the hobby. Their first two efforts were considered failures and as deep as my life was in trading cards by 1997, I didn’t know many collectors who knew what Zenith was, let alone any that had a single card from their two releases in their collection. Unfortunately, after 1997, Zenith’s stock would drop to new, unprecedeted levels.
However, their dubious 1997 release received undeserving scorn. Underneath the weird product breakdown of five standard sized cards and two over-sized cards per pack, their way too high price tag of $10 per pack, their missing the boat on autographs or serial numbered inserts, and their 50-card checklist missing several stars (JOSE!), there was still something great about ’97 Zenith.
For me, 1991 Topps features the greatest baseball photographs ever used in a trading card set. Coming in a close second, believe it or not, is 1997 Zenith. For whatever reason, Zenith dropped the tacky foil and baseball clip art for some of the best photos used in a card set, ever. Sure, sample Zenith cards haven’t hit iconic levels but that’s only because the set itself was such a departure that it failed miserably.
After a disastrous 1997 release, Pinnacle brought Zenith back with a more traditional break down but this time the cards featured a thick border which made the photograph used on the front almost irrelevant. They also had the first ever “RIP” cards which were oversized and had a card inside, if you “dared to tear”. Once again, Zenith left Jose Canseco out of their checklist but included Todd Hundley and Fernando Tatis.
1998 was the final year for Zenith, a complicated brand which never found success or love from collectors. It also marked the end of Pinnacle Brands as a company and the death of the true, Dufex technology. Today, boxes of ’97 Zenith can be found on eBay for $10 or less. If you are a fan of baseball cards and not gimmicks, I highly suggest this product as it is truly one of the most underrated of the 90s.