When someone is highly alert, sharp and generally at their best, we say that they are “on the ball”. What ball are we referring to? What is the origin of this phrase: “to be on the ball”?
Whilst there are several theories floating around regarding the origins of the idiom “on the ball” there is one theory that has the highest likelihood of being correct, and this theory relates to the ball games, particularly baseball.
In the early 1900s, baseball pitchers would try to put special spins, curves, speeds and tricks on the ball to outwit the batter. A good pitcher always puts something on the ball, and the commentators and sports journalists of the time would note this. These sports commentators provide the first documented use of the phrase “on the ball”.
Another use of the phrase “on the ball” was also used during training in ball games where coaches encouraged the players to keep their eye on the ball for optimal performance. The best players had this focus on the ball which enabled them to play better. The term “keep your eye on the ball” was recorded to be used in baseball, cricket, croquet, football, golf, soccer and rounders. “Keeping your eye on the ball” is documented even earlier than the “putting something on the ball” phrase, with one citation talking about keeping your eye on a rounders ball dating back to 1864 in a novel by WHG Kingston called “Ernest Bracebridge, Or, Schoolboy Days”.
Since “putting something on the ball” in pitching and “keeping your eye on the ball” in sports became synonymous with players being at their best, the phrase soon adopted its modern meaning of being in good form outside the realm of sports too.
This site is working in affiliation with Amazon.com (for USA visitors) and The Nutri Centre (for UK visitors). If you like a product that was recommended anywhere on this website, please consider buying these products via the links on this site, to help keep this website running. Thanks
I’m glad I found this site. I have read your article and found it to be very interesting!
Good to see this.
Nice guess, but so wrong! On the Ball refers to someone that used a “Ball” pocket watch. Think about it…if a pitcher put something on the ball…they literally put something on it…spin, speed etc. You wouldn’t use this to describe someone else. If, on the other hand, someone were exact, punctual, precise etc. You would say they’re on the “Ball” pocket watch. Research Webb Ball and it will all make much more sense.
Absolutely. The phrase “On the Ball” had to do with timekeeping in railroads after a disasterous collision at the end of the 19th century because an engineer’s watch had stopped. To prevent a recurrance, Webb C. Ball was engaged as a time inspector to establish timekeeping standards for railroad chronometers used by railroad engineers and stationmasters for that railway. Webb Ball, a jeweler and watchmaker, established railroad chromometer standards. Those standards far exceeded today’s Swiss COSC chonometer standards. Ball’s subsequent watch company also made pocket watches which met those standards. He also established a service for re-certifying railroad chronometers every two weeks. Eventually, Webb Ball was the time inspector (and standards setter) for over half the nation’s railways. Chronometers to those standards were required to vary no more than 30 seconds every week or about 4 seconds a day. Being “On the Ball” meant keeping time and punctuality within his railway standards and, later, being very punctual and meeting or exceeding standards in general.
“On the ball” is an expression which is applicable in any number of ball games, as in “focussed on the ball” and others, which has seeped across into general English. Nice try Joe with the free publicity for watches… I hope everyone was on the ball when they read that example of web-tosh