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Which ball do they mean saying "to be on the ball"? The meaning I see means "in good shape", "in good spirits", "in the zone".

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    Hello Valentin, hope you're enjoying your time on EL&U. I feel extremely timid to edit your question because you might accuse me of being a criminal! It says so on your profile page, so perhaps you could also include a request to know something more about the history of the idiom? You have two fine answers which have talked about its origin.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 17 '17 at 8:03
  • Loosely related: “Try to be on the ball to have a ball”?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 17 '17 at 8:20
  • Please link to a specific site with the "in good shape" definition - that definition is unfamiliar to me. The ones I checked from your google link say something along the lines of "quick to understand", which matches my understanding of the term.
    – Lawrence
    Mar 17 '17 at 13:48
  • I suspect that, at least in part, the "on the ball" idiom can be traced back to circus shows and the like where acrobats would stand balancing on a large (roughly 70-100 cm diameter) ball and roll it around.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 9 '19 at 1:45
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RAILROAD WATCHES at the end of the 19th Century and well into the first half of the 20th Century were depended on to run trains on time. In the late 1890s there was a very bad train wreck which took place because a railroad conductor's pocket watch was off-time by more than eight minutes; based on what he BELIEVED was the correct time, the conductor gave the go-ahead to his train's locomotive engineer to proceed along a stretch of single track, relying on the schedule that showed that no trains would be traveling in the opposite direction along that same stretch of single track at that time. As a result of this conductor's inaccurate watch, his train collided head-on with another train traveling in the opposite direction, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries.

After this fatal wreck, railroad timekeeping, dependent on the precision, accuracy and reliability of railroad pocket watches, had to be raised to a much higher standard, wherein it became mandatory that ALL railroad watches in the United States had to be regularly inspected for accuracy and reliability, and removed from service for repair when found to be faulty.

The person put in charge of establishing and enforcing these new rules and setting the new higher minimum standards a railroad pocket watch had to meet in order to qualify as such, was a man by the name of Webb C. Ball, of Cleveland, Ohio, who was at the time the general time inspector for over 125,000 miles of railroad in the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico.

The American watch manufacturers Elgin, Hamilton, Waltham and others were therefore mandated to raise their standards for accurate time-keeping to meet Ball's new requirements. Some railroad watches were manufactured and sold under Webb C. Ball's own name, and Ball's 23-jewel railroad pocket watches have engraved on their dial faces, "BALL - OFFICIAL STANDARD - CLEVELAND." Thus it came to be that the phrase, "to be on the BALL," in railroaders' lexicon, meant that "YOUR TRAIN IS RUNNING ON TIME."

This story of railroad time-keeping adds yet another curious dimension to the many equally relevant sports- and maritime-related concepts of what it means "to be on the ball."

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  • Wikipedia has a similar story with different details.
    – Davo
    Feb 8 '19 at 18:56
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The ball in the earliest uses of the phrase "be on the ball" seems to have been literally a ball of one of the various sorts used in different sports; but over time it became figurative for "the task at hand" or "the thing of importance."

Paul Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (1989) suggests that the broader idiom on the ball originated with baseball:

on the ball adj. Describing a pitcher who is working well. A good pitcher with the ability to deceive batters is said to have a lot on the ball. "Confidence is great stuff but the pitcher must put something else on the ball." (San Francisco Call, October 16, 1913; PT)

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) agrees with Dickson about the origin of the term:

on the ball, be Also, have a lot or something on the ball. Be especially capable or efficient, as in These programmers really have a lot on the ball. This term originated in baseball, where it was used for throwing a pitch with exceptional speed, spin, or some other deceptive motion {Slang; early 1900s}

Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997), however, offers a somewhat different analysis:

on the ball. Depending on how it is used, the expression has two different origins. To be on the ball, "to be alert, knowledgeable, on top of things," probably refers to close and clever following of the ball by players in British soccer or American basketball. The phrase may have arisen independently in each sport, or it may have originated in the 1940s with the "bop and cool" jazz musicians and fans as the American Dictionary of Slang suggests. There is no hard evidence for any theory, but the sports analogy seems more logical. To have something on the ball, "to be talented or effective in some way," is surely of American origin, a baseball term referring to the various"stuff"—curves, spin, etc.—a good pitcher can put on the ball to frustrate a batter.

I ran an Elephind search for "to be on the ball" and found this instance from "Berserkers v. Wanderers," in the [Rockhampton, Queensland] Morning Bulletin (July 21, 1891):

"Doctor" was one of the best of tho backs, always coming to the rescue with a capital run and kick. R. Thomas and Bree also played particularly well. Among the forwards J. Thomas, T. M'William, W. Schmidt, and H. B. Gavin worked with a will, and always seemed to be on the ball. For the losers H. Carpendale played in grand form, kicking, running, and tackling splendidly. On two or three occasions he was within an ace of scoring, but was forced into touch in the nick of time.

A similar instance appears in "Sporting," in the [Broken Hill New South Wales] Barrier Miner (May 15, 1893):

That Mr. A. Trenberth is a success as central umpire there can be no doubt. His speed enables him to be on the ball throughout the match, he is using his influence to discourage wing play, and his decisions seem very just. It must have been in a moment of indecision that in the second quarter of Saturday's match he acted in a manner which mystified onlookers and players alike.

This last instance is significant because, whereas one might describe a football or basketball players as being "on the ball" because of being in direct continuous or repeated contact with the ball, a referee never intentionally comes in contact with the ball during play. So in this case "on the ball" wins out over the more descriptively accurate "near the ball" and may represent an early stage of idiomatic usage of "on the ball." Australians, at any rate, seem to have been using the phrase in Hendrickson's "non-baseball" sense long before the 1940s.

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Update (February 8, 2019): Earliest instances of 'get on the ball'

An interesting answer posted today by Eric Talbot raises the possibility that "to be on the ball" may have originated as train engineers' jargon for "to be on synchronized time, in accordance with a properly adjusted Ball watch"—Ball being Webb C. Ball, a Cleveland, Ohio, watchmaker who, beginning in the 1890s, produced a highly accurate watch and developed the "RR Standard" for watch accuracy, readability, and reliability. Two advertisements of unspecified date included in the Wikipedia entry for Ball Watch Company include tag lines or slogans: "Safety First" and "Carry a Ball, and time them all!"Nevertheless, Stacy Perman, A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World's Most Legendary Watch (2013) identifies a different tagline for the company:

The Ball Railroad Watch was advertised with the tagline that soon became shorthand for accuracy: "Get on the Ball."

Whether "on the ball" was ever understood to be shorthand (or slightly lengthened hand) for "accurate," it evidently doesn't have that meaning today, as Christine Ammer's entry for the term (cited earlier in this answer) indicates.

Anyway, to follow up on the suggestion that Ball train watches were the source of the expression "to be on the ball," I searched some book and periodical databases for instances of "get on the ball," "are on the ball," "is on the ball," "be on the ball," and "eyes on the ball" to see whether and how soon the expression appears in the context of a train setting. Unfortunately, I didn't find any instances of these phrases from the late 1800s and early 1900s that involved trains.

On the other hand, I did find numerous examples of the phrases from as early as 1850 in a sporting context—specifically in a discussion of croquet rules:

With regard to the particular expression "get on the ball," instances go back to 1880 (several years prior to the 1891 founding of the Ball Watch Company)—and strikingly, most of the earliest matches come from Australia, not the United States. From "Present Kensington v. Old Kensington," in the [Adelaide] South Australian Advertiser (October 1, 1883):

The Old Kensingtons won rather easily and without any apparent effort, which was probably owing to the fact that a number of their players were prominent members of various association teams. A\ large number of them, however, ware old footballers who have not appeared on a football field for some time, and although their efforts to get on the ball frequently amused the onlookers, it was at times evident that the football clubs of the colony had lost some good men by their retirement.

From "Football Notes" in the [Adelaide] South Australian Weekly Chronicle (June 5, 1886):

Neither Roberts nor C. Woods played in the style they did on Monday ; both were suffering from injuries sustained then. I am inclined to believe that Woods "funked" a little, as he did not get on the ball at all and consequently was not able to shine in goal kicking.

From "Football," in the Wallaroo [South Australia] Times (May 25, 1887):

The [Young] Turks [of Moonta] are to be congratulated for the manner in, which they ' received the umpire's decision [disallowing a goal scored at the half-time bell]. After the usual respite the visitors were the first to get on the ball, their followers doing some grand work. The ball travelled all over the ground, owing to the exertions of the Kadinas' cehtre men, the ball at last got into the Turks' territory, and as the ball was rolling, Rodda kicked a lucky goal.

From "Cricket. The Australian Eleven v. Shaws Team," in the Sydney [New South Wales] Morning Herald (February 25, 1888):

Jarvis stood behind the wickets, Blackham no doubt abandoning his old post temporarily with a great deal of pleasure. The South Australian's wicket-keeping was by no means free from blemishes; due mainly to the great amount of work that the bowlers were enabled to get on the ball, but he made amends for all short-comings by catching out Maurice Read, Smith and Preston, and stumping Ulyett.

From "Football," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Evening News (August 13, 1888):

In the final quarter there was a falling off in the play of both teams, a result mainly brought about by the disinclination of the men to keep their allotted places in the field. Indeed at times, so great was the anxiety to get on the ball, there seemed a probability of the whole forty becoming the followers, and this disregard of one of the best points of the game prevented anything like effective play.

From "Old World Sport" in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Evening News (October 14, 1889):

LONDON, August 16.— ... But Lohmann and Beaumont bowled like demons. They were favored by the state of the pitch it is true, and had a lot of luck. But their performance was a grand one. The very caution of the Notts men helped to bring about their downfall, for more than one batsman was bowled by a hall which he did not attempt to play, such tremendous work did the bowlers—Lohmann especially—get on the ball. There was tremendous betting on the match, for Nottingham is the home of some of the largest bookmakers in England, who are all cricket mad, ...

From "W.G. Grace on Bowling," in the Launceston [Tasmania] Examiner (October 18, 1890):

As soon as he has mastered length he [the bowler] must try to add to his skill the power of breaking the ball, and then he may safely hug the thought that he is within measurable distance of becoming first class. The amount of break he can get on the ball will depend very much on his pace. Should he be fast he must not hope for too much, for the two rarely go together.

From "Tumut T.C. Sires' Produce Stakes" in the Wagga Wagga [New South Wales] Express (October 23, 1890):

The bowler at the other end was a wiry little fellow locally as much renowned for the precision of his bowling as for the fearful pace he could get on the ball. "Play," said the umpire, and away went the ball like a cannon shot, breaking across on to the unfortunate batsman's fingers with a smash heard all over the field.

From "Councillors and Cricket. The Return Muff Match," in the Coburg [Victoria] Leader (April 22, 1891):

Mr. E. King and Mr. G. Clarke both made a fair stand, and Sergeant Brown hit the air vigorously, but failed to get on the ball. The match closed with a decisive win for Coburg, the visitors only making 37, although the score book said 89.

From "Intercolonial Football," in the [Adelaide] South Australian Chronicle (June 290, 1891):

From the kick-off Wheatland captured the leather and cleverly forced it into our men's stronghold, where Webb was frustrated in his endeavors to get on the ball, and a Victorian gaming a mark tried for goal, but a minor only was the outcome. Immediately after this McShane was afforded an opportunity to score, in which he succeeded, and the fifth goal to the visitors was registered.

From "Football Gossip," in the [Echuca, Victoria] Riverine Herald (June 20, 1891):

Jacky played a splendid game. He kicked well, marked well, and was always on the ball. Look to your laurels Wolfy, for Jacky is coming very fast.

...

Hanson, on the right centre wing, did not play his usual game. He always seems to be itching to get on the ball; always keep your place, Paddy, and watch your man. Come up to the rink a little more regularly.

And from "Mount Gambier v. Narracoorte," in the [Mount Gambier, South Australia] Border Watch (August 22, 1891):

The home team were the first to get on the ball in the last quarter, Chesterfield kicked it near the goal, and immediately after the white flag fluttered. Kicked off, the Mounts still kept the ball moving round their opponents' goal.

If you're scoring at home, that's seven matches for Australian football, five matches for Australian cricket, and zero matches for trains and/or pocket watches. Notably "get on the ball" in football seems to mean "go where the ball is" while "get on the ball" in cricket seems to mean "put a difficult spin or curve on the ball"

Despite the dominance of Australian matches in these early results, the earliest match of all in Elephind search results comes from "Yale vs. Columbia" in the Columbia [University, New York City] Daily Spectator (November 18, 1880):

The ball having been kicked off, was promptly returned and our men were forced to touch again for safety, and Yale soon scored another touchdown from which Camp kicked a goal. The same sort of play continued : each time that Clark kicked off the ball would be returned by one of Yale's half-backs with a very high punt, which enabled their rushers to get on the ball as soon as our men, and, as they were greatly superior to the latter in strength and skill, the consequence was that they scored two more goals before time was called. About two minutes before half time Henry received a violent blow on the back of his head in stopping a man, and his place was taken by Jenkins till the close of the first half.

By 1892, the expression "get on the ball" had begun reappearing in U.S. sporting contexts. From "How Thibetans Play Polo," in the Marin [California] Journal (January 14, 1892):

About fourteen or fifteen men play at the same time, and they all charge down anyhow on the ball from all directions. The ponies, however, apparently know the game and stop when they get on the ball, when a general scrimmage ensues, in which the ponies' legs generally suffer most.

From "Tackle Low Now: All Ready for the Game of To-Day," in the [San Francisco, California] Call (November 29, 1894):

Left guard Charles Fickert is a Native Son and hails from Bakersfield [California]. He learned the game at Stanford last season, being a member of the second eleven. This season he has been playing a most conscientious game. He blocks well, gets into interference and is quick to get on the ball. He is able to bold his own at tackling with most any of the big men. Fickert is a heavy, powerful man of twenty-one. He weighs over 190 pounds and is 6 feet 2 inches in height.

From "City in Brief," in the Aspen [Colorado] Morning Sun (August 3, 1895):

The curves that John L. Palmer, jr., will get on the ball next Sunday will strike terror to the hearts of the Counter Hops. John L., jr., will pitch for the Ink Slingers.

From "Polo: Philadelphia Teams Play the Most Scientific Game of the Season," in the New York Tribune (June 6, 1899):

The second players proved themselves to be past masters in the art of stealing balls and preventing hard strokes when they saw they could not possibly get on the ball themselves. The prediction was made that in another year Philadelphia will be able to put into the field a quartette that will outplay Meadow Brook.

And from "Cricket: Ranjitsinhji's Eleven and Twenty-two 'Colts' Made a Drawn Match" in the [New York] Sun (September 28, 1899):

PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 27.—The first American game of Prince Ranjitsinhji's cricket team ended today in a draw match with the twenty-two "Colts" of Philadelphia. ... The bowlers had everything their own way, a fact demonstrated by the immense amount of work which both Llewellyn and Stoddart were able to get on the ball. Not withstanding all this the Colts are to be congratulated on their splendid showing and they certainly hail the best of the draw.

And from "" in the St Louis [Missouri] Republic (February 4, 1901):

When it [spring] does arrive it will be well to be ready, that is, have the muscles broken in and the eye educated to the ball. It is a sin to waste good days outdoors in nursing started arm sinews or in giving the eye time to get on the ball. Those who have lain off for a month or so know it is not an easy thing to keep the eye on the ball for the first two or three days of spring play.

The seven U.S. matches for "get on the ball" as of early 1901 are thus distributed across multiple sports: two U.S football, two polo, one baseball, one cricket, and one golf. Again, the number for trains or watches is zero.


Conclusion

The foregoing instances—and from the absence of any matches for "get on the Ball" involving trains or pocket watches during the years from 1880 to 1901—strongly suggest that, if the Ball Watch Company did indeed adopt the slogan "Get on the Ball" at some point after 1901, it did so as a play on the existing idiomatic phrase "get on the ball" and not as the original source of the expression. That is not to say that the theory that the Ball Watch Company is responsible for the idiomatic phrase "get on the ball" has no foundation at all—but it seems far likelier that that theory is an instance of folk etymology or of anachronistic piggybacking of a company slogan on an already existing idiomatic phrase.

Proponents of the view that "get on the ball" originated with a slogan invented by the Ball Watch Company need to account for two complications: first, the fact that a substantial number of instances of "get on the ball" (in different sporting senses) predate the existence of the Ball Watch Company; and second, the fact that neither Google Books searches nor Elephind searches turns up any instances of "get on the ball" in connection with trains or watches during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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  • Now what's going to happen if one day someone does ask about the origin of the phrase? There are now two answers talking about the idiom's history when the questioner never mentions it in their request.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 17 '17 at 7:57
  • I suppose the best solution would be to edit the OP and include a request about its history myself. But I'll wait a bit, first I see if the poster "themself" is willing to edit the question.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 17 '17 at 8:05
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    @Mari-LouA: Your first comment is a just critique of my original answer. I have amended the answer to start with a statement of how the ball in the expression is generally understood today—but I do think that the origin of the expression is highly relevant to the current meaning, and that's what the rest of my answer focuses on.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 17 '17 at 16:21
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Though there are different arguments regarding the ball in the phrase 'on the ball'. Dictionary.com has the following definition which points towards the ball of any ball games and seems quite sensible:

get on the ball

verb phrase

To pay closer attention to doing something right; improve one's performance •Often an exasperated command

[1940s+; fr keep your eye on the ball, fr baseball or other ball sports]


The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. and Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D. Copyright (C) 2007 by HarperCollins Publishers.


The Phrase Finder states the following:

  • Some authorities have suggested that 'on the ball' originated in the sporting arena, and alludes to runners being on the balls of their feet, eagerly ready to run a race.

  • A more commonly advocated location for the source of 'on the ball' is the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. This is where the oldest surviving and best known time-ball is sited. The Greenwich time-ball was installed in 1833 to signal the accurate time to passing ships. It was, and still is, raised just before 1pm each day and falls as 1pm strikes on the observatory's clock. Captains needed to have their ships' chronometers set accurately in order to navigate correctly, hence they needed to be 'on the ball'.

  • The phrase 'on the ball' did actually originate in the sporting arena, but relates to the eyes rather than the feet. It is a contraction of the earlier expression 'keep your eye on the ball', which advice has been given to participants in virtually every known ball game.

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  • I think it might be worthwhile for you to note that since "on the ball" is often declarative instead of advisory, the phrase can sometimes be closer in meaning to "I have my eye on the ball".
    – Tonepoet
    Mar 17 '17 at 3:18
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As a shortening of "keep your eye on the ball", baseball and golf come to mind. The meaning implies focus and alertness. There is also the phrase "behind the 8-ball", from billiards, used metaphorically to describe a sort of final moment, the last shot that precludes victory.

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    I could be convinced by evidence. Got any? There are many sources to confirm that eye on the ball comes from various games played with spheroids. It's plausible but is it true that you're "on the ball" if you've got your "eye on the ball"?
    – deadrat
    Mar 16 '17 at 5:05
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I think of being 'on the ball' more like balancing oneself on an actual ball, like an elephant in the circus, or an idiot at the gym. To be on the ball would mean having the balance or foresight to identify and fulfill needs before they are needed.

If a nurse hands a doctor a scalpel before he has time to ask for it, the nurse can be said to be 'on the ball.'

If a camper pulls out a bag of marshmellows that somebody else was supposed to bring, they are 'on the ball'

Balancing on a ball is similar, in that one has to have the awareness and foresight to shift their center of gravity before the moment of no return.

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