I started this blog in 2007 and despite some less than stellar posts here and there, I promised I’d never lower myself to doing a “Top Ten” list. Well, 12 years have gone by and lately I have become obsessed with getting just one, very special list out to collectors and readers of this site. It’s something I have been kicking around for two years but only now, am I finally ready to commit. Folks, this is a Top Ten list devoted to 1997 baseball cards. In my humble opinion, the ’97 calendar year will go down as the greatest of all-time. This was the year baseball cards transcended the age-old argument of being silly “pictures of men” and became in several cases, literal works of art. This is not hyperbole. Stick around and you will see exactly what I mean.
Before I begin, I’d like to point out that this list is based off my own collecting experience with 22 years of input from collectors who I have had the pleasure of interacting with in card shops, message boards, and through social media. Not everyone will agree with this list but that’s what Twitter and the comment section was created for. Did I miss something? Let me know. Did I rank a particular product way too high? Let me have it. My goal in putting together this list is to showcase the ten best releases of 1997 to remind those who may have forgotten of the beauty of these products OR to introduce new collectors who weren’t around at that time, what kind of stuff us 90s kids were obsessing over.
So with all that said …. let’s start the countdown!
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By the mid to late 90s, it seemed like Pinnacle Brands could do no wrong. With just 6 years under their belt, they held the title of the king of high-end baseball cards and introduced the collecting world to the very first “one of one”. That perfect reputation all crumbled with the release of Zenith in 1997.
Plagued by its tiny checklist (50), a minimalist design, and over-sized baseball cards, this product bombed in card shops around the country. But despite its many quirks, at its core, Pinnacle’s Zenith release was full of un-be-liev-able photography and ultra-glossy card stock which made these cards truly stand out. By ’97, collectors only had one more year left of Dufex, Pinnacle’s answer to the growing popularity of Topps’ Refractor and boy did they get it right.
When you have a product featuring exceptional photography and a technology in its prime (Dufex), the result is nothing short of baseball card magic. Today, you can find unopened boxes of ’97 Zenith for around $45 dollars or less on eBay but many patient collectors have found boxes in the $15-$20 range.
Unfortunately, the following year, Pinnacle gave Zenith a complete overhaul in design and product breakdown. The follow-up to the criminally underrated ’97 release now boasted 100 cards and introduced collectors to the first ever “RIP” card almost a decade before Topps copied the idea for Allen & Ginter. Nothing could save 1998 Zenith, however, as Pinnacle Brands was now drowning in multiple product failures like Pinnacle Inside and Pinnacle Mint. The wheels were suddenly coming off at an alarming speed. It should come as no surprise that 1998 was the last year of Pinnacle Brands.
Zenith, Score, and all of Pinnacle’s product licenses today belong to Panini America. Unfortunately, due to Panini’s inability to use MLB logos in their baseball products and MLB’s strong relationship with Topps, it is almost a guarantee that we will never see a true return of Zenith Baseball or Pinnacle. There was a 2013 resurrection by Panini but we will NEVER discuss that abomination.
Below are examples of ’97 Zenith, including base cards, Dufex parallels, and even a glimpse into the beloved and unique Pinnacle card backs. Unfortunately, this product did not contain any game-used memorabilia cards or pack-inserted autographs, which was common for Pinnacle. In fact, no mainstream Pinnacle release contained a single relic or autograph chase card except that of the CEO, Jerry Meyer, on the back of the original printing plates in ’97 New Pinnacle.
While Zenith lacked today’s overdone “hits”, which even in 1997 was growing in popularity by leaps and bounds, Pinnacle did include a 9-card insert set named Z-Team, with cards serial numbered to 1,000 and pack stated odds of 1:99. None of the cards in this set will help pay your rent but if you’re a true “collector” and/or you love the game of baseball, you cannot go wrong with this magnificent and forgotten release.