Insert Card Craze: Zenith Z-Team Baseball Cards of the 1990s

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In the days before serial numbers, relic cards, certified autographs and countless parallels, simple base insert cards ruled the hobby.

The first insert cards arrived on the market in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the insert card craze truly swept the hobby, aided in part by rising young superstars Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas.

In the coming weeks, we will be taking a look back at some of the more memorable insert sets from that era and their progression over the years.

Next up, we turn our attention to the super-premium Zenith product from Pinnacle and the Z-Team inserts that were the chase cards in the product’s four-year run from 1995 to 1998. The cards were a tough pull and their design has stood the test of time, which has helped them hold their value.

1995 Zenith Z-Team

Cards: 18
Hall of Famers: 8

The inaugural Zenith Baseball release sold for $4.99 per pack and the Z-Team inserts were found at a tough 1:72 insertion ratio. The only other inserts in the product — All-Star Salute (1:6) and Rookie Roll Call (1:24) — are much easier to pull.

Thanks to Zenith being under the Pinnacle umbrella, they were able to utilize the beloved Dufex technology for the Z-Team cards, and the 18-card checklist was loaded with superstar talent, including eight Hall of Famers.

Ken Griffey Jr. ($50), Cal Ripken Jr. ($30), Barry Bonds ($25) and Don Mattingly ($25) have the highest book value among the 18 cards, while Carlos Baerga ($2) represents the low end of the spectrum.

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1996 Zenith Z-Team

Cards: 18
Hall of Famers: 8

The 1996 Zenith release has a different assortment of insert cards, including Mozaics (1:10), Diamond Club (1:24) and an Artist’s Proof parallel (1:36) to borrow an idea from the Pinnacle flagship set, but they brought back the Z-Team inserts and they were again the toughest pull at 1:72 packs.

The Mozaics inserts were given the Dufex treatment this time around, while the Z-Team cards were reworked with a clear, micro-etched acetate design.

Ken Griffey Jr. ($12), Cal Ripken Jr. ($12), Barry Bonds ($8) and Greg Maddux ($8) carry the top book values, while Albert Belle, Jim Edmonds, Ryan Klesko, Gary Sheffield, Mo Vaughn and Matt Williams ($2) are the most affordable of the 18-card checklist.

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1997 Zenith Z-Team

Cards: 9
Hall of Famers: 6

The Zenith product was revamped in 1997 with each pack containing five standard sized cards and two oversized 8″ x 10″ parallels with a hefty $9.99 per pack price. It proved to be a massive flop with extremely low sales, and discounted boxes surfaced years later at retail when Pinnacle went out of business.

Despite the product failing to deliver on expectations, the Z-Team inserts still carry significant value, and they are an even tougher pull than in previous years with a 1:99 pack insertion rate and a print run of just 1,000. They were only released in the 8″ x 10″ size.

Ken Griffey Jr. ($40), Cal Ripken Jr. ($40), Derek Jeter ($30), Roger Clemens ($25), Alex Rodriguez ($20) and Mike Piazza ($20) are the most valuable cards in the set based on book value, with Frank Thomas ($12), Andruw Jones ($8) and Larry Walker ($5) rounding out the abbreviated nine-card checklist.

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1998 Zenith Z-Team

Cards: 18
Hall of Famers: 7

For the fourth and final Zenith release, things really went off the deep end.

Each pack features three 5″ x 7″ cards which contained inside of them one standard sized 2.5” x 3.5” card, with a “Dare to Tear” gimmick encouraging collectors to decide between keeping the oversized card or tearing it open to find out what was inside. Basically, they’re an early form of Rip Cards.

There are 80 jumbo cards and 100 standard-sized cards in the set, and the Z-Team inserts also come with some parallel options.

There were 18 cards in the standard-sized set, nine established stars and nine up-and-coming young players. Those 18 cards also have a Gold parallel, and the first nine cards in the base set are also available as 5″ x 7″ jumbo cards.

For comparison, the Ken Griffey Jr. Gold parallel ($80) and 5″ x 7″ jumbo ($40) both have a higher book value than the base insert ($25).

Cards 1-9 in the base set (1:35 packs) are easier to pull than cards 10-18 (1:58 packs), while the Gold parallels (1:175) are the toughest pull in the product line.

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Joel Reuter

Joel is a National MLB Columnist at Bleacher Report who has spent the last decade as a full-time MLB writer. A lifelong Cubs fan and Chicago resident, nostalgia drives his card-collecting focus. He is currently working on assembling the entire base catalogs of four of his all-time favorites—Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee.

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