Origin of phrases, by way of instant messenger:
[10:42] d: Is "on the ball" a soccer thing?
[10:42] m: probably a victorian england thing
[10:42] d: victorian england soccer?
[10:42] d: tennis?
[10:42] d: rugby?
[10:43] d: I say, fraffly good scrimmaging there, old bean. On the ball like a muttonchop.
[10:43] m: i say, you've cleated me in the face yet again, windsor
[10:43] m: ha!
[10:46] d: etymonline.com says 1912 for "on the ball", from - get this - "sports".
[10:46] d: I'm pretty sure "sports" came out in 87
[I go off and google the answer and paste in a bit from word-detective.com]
[10:48] d: But all this ball-dropping has nothing to do with the origin of "on the ball," meaning "to be alert" or "to be prepared and in control of the situation." According to Paul Dickson's New Dickson's Baseball Dictionary, the phrase originated in the early 20th century U.S. in the sport of baseball, where a pitcher who dominated and successfully manipulated the opposing batters was said to "have" or "be putting" a lot "on the ball," possibly referring to spin or other sorts of sneaky pitcher tricks. From there the phrase migrated into general use and acquired its current sense of "able to handle whatever comes up."
[10:48] m: sneaky pitcher tricks
[A non-sequitur, from browsing further along the same word-detective.com page:]
[10:49] d: "T-shirts, by the way, are so called because they form a "T" when laid flat."
[10:49] d: erm
[10:49] d: as opposed to Q-shirts?
[10:50] m: F-shirts for people with both arms on one side
[10:50] d: V-shirts, also called "pants"