He was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to Thomas Ball, a house and sign painter and Elizabeth Wyer Hall. His father died when he was twelve. After several odd jobs to help support his family he spent three years working at the Boston Museum, which he later described as a "place of amusement" rather than an art museum. There he entertained the visitors by drawing portraits, playing the violin, and singing, and repaired mechanical toys. He then became an apprentice for the museum wood-carver Abel Brown. He taught himself oil painting by copying prints and casts in the studio of the museum superintendent.
His earliest work was a bust of Jenny Lind, whom he saw on her 1850 tour of the United States. Copies of his Lind work and his bust of Daniel Webster sold widely before being widely copied by others. His work includes many early cabinet busts of musicians. His first statue of a figure was a two-foot high statue of Daniel Webster, on which he worked from photographs and engravings until he managed to see him pass his studio shortly before his death.
Ball was an accomplished musician and from his teenage years worked as a paid singer in Boston churches. He performed as an unpaid soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society beginning in 1846 and with that organization sang the title role in the first United States performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah, and the baritone solos in Rossini's Moses in Egypt. On a visit to Boston years later he performed the baritone role in Boston's first performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the Germania Orchestra on April 2, 1853.
He made it a practice never to attend the unveiling of any of his public works. Once in Boston he managed to avoid receiving the invitation to the ceremonial dedication of his statue of Gov. Andrew and instead went to see the work later, viewing it from different approaches. He later wrote: "It was a mean thing to do. I am ashamed of it now; but I could not bring myself to stand on that platform and face the multitude."
Daniel Webster (bronze, 1885–86), New Hampshire State House, Concord, New Hampshire. The commission was first given to sculptor Martin Milmore, then to his brother. Ball took it over following the deaths of both Milmores. This has a different pose from his earlier Webster statues.
George Washington Monument (1883–93), Methuen, Massachusetts. This was Ball's most complex and ambitious work, consisting of a 15-foot bronze statue of Washington, 4 larger-than-life seated figures, 4 portrait busts, and 4 eagles flanked by flags, all displayed on a multi-tiered marble base. The monument was created at Ball's studio in Florence, Italy. His son-in-law, William Couper, assisted in modeling the figures. It was exhibited at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, before being installed in Methuen, Massachusetts and dedicated on February 22, 1900.