Little is known of his early years, but he lived probably at York and afterwards at Colchester. He gained considerable fame as a preacher by expounding the doctrines of John Wycliffe, but especially by his insistence on the principle of social equality. These utterances brought him into collision with the archbishop of Canterbury, and on three occasions he was committed to prison. He appears also to have been excommunicated, and in 1366 all persons were forbidden to hear him preach.
His opinions, however, were not moderated, nor his popularity diminished by these measures, and his words had a considerable effect in stirring up the rising which broke out in June 1381. Ball was then in prison at Maidstone; but he was quickly released by the Kentish rebels, to whom he preached at Blackheath from the text, "When Adam dolve and Evë span, Who was then a gentleman?"
He urged his hearers to kill the principal lords of the kingdom and the lawyers; and he was afterwards among those who rushed into the Tower of London to seize Simon of Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury. When the rebels dispersed Ball fled to the midland counties, but was taken prisoner at Coventry and executed in the presence of Richard II on July 15 1381. Ball, who was called by Froissart "the mad priest of Kent," seems to have possessed the gift of rhyme. He undoubtedly voiced the feelings of the lower orders of society at that time.
After taking his BA degree from St Mary's Hall, Oxford, in 1608, he went into Cheshire to act as tutor to the children of Lady Cholmondeley. He adopted Puritan views, and after being ordained without subscription, was appointed to the small curacy of Whitmore in Staffordshire. He was soon deprived by John Bridgeman, the high church bishop of Chester, who put him to much suffering. He became a schoolmaster and earned a wide and high reputation for his scholarship and piety. He died on the 20th of October 1640. The most popular of his numerous works was A Short Catechisnie, containing all the Principal Grounds of Religion (14 editions before 1632). His Treatise of Faith (1632), and Friendly Trial of the Grounds tending to Separation (1640), the latter of which defines his position with regard to the church, are also valuable.
He was educated at the Roman Catholic College at Oscott near Birmingham, and at Christ's College, Cambridge. He showed in early years a taste for natural science, particularly botany; and after leaving Cambridge he travelled in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe, studying his favourite pursuits, and contributing papers on botany and the Swiss glaciers to scientific periodicals. In 1846 he was made an assistant poor-law commissioner, but resigned in 1847, and in 1848 stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Sligo. In 1849 he was appointed second poor-law commissioner, but resigned in 1852 and successfully contested the county of Carlow in the Liberal interest. In the British House of Commons he attracted Lord Palmerston's attention by his abilities, and in 1885 was made under-secretary for the colonies, a post which he held for two years. At the colonial office he had great influence in furthering the cause of natural science, particularly in connection with equipment of the Palliser Expedition in Canada, and with William Jackson Hooker's efforts to obtain a systematic knowledge of the colonial floras. In 1858 he stood for Limerick, but was beaten, and he then gave up politics and devoted himself to natural history. He was first president of the Alpine Club (founded 1857), and it is for his work as an Alpinist that he is chiefly remembered, his well-known Alpine Guide (London, 1863 - 1868) being the result of innumerable climbs and journeys and of careful observation recorded in a clear and often entertaining style. He also travelled in Morocco (1871) and South America (1882), and recorded his observations in books which were recognized as having a scientific value. He died in London.
After winning the British Amateur in 1888, Ball became the first English-born player to win the British Open in 1890, and in the same year won his second Amateur, the first to win both titles in the same year. Ball subsequently won the 1892, 1894, 1899, 1907, 1910, and 1912 Amateurs, a record seven titles in all in addition to two runner-up finishes. Ball was also runner-up in the 1892 British Open.