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.
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