Ball was born in Feilding in 1939; his father was All Black rugby player Nelson Ball. He grew up in New Zealand before spending some years in Australia and South Africa, where he attended Parktown Boys' High School and finished his education. As a young man he worked for the Dominion newspaper in Wellington and the Manawatu Times before becoming a freelance cartoonist and moving to Scotland, where he found work with publishers DC Thomson, of Dundee.
He developed his character Stanley and had it published in the influential English humour-magazine Punch. Stanley the Palaeolithic Hero featured a caveman who wore glasses and struggled with the Neolithic environment. It became the longest-running strip in Punch's history, and other English and non-English speaking countries syndicated it. Ball continued to contribute to Punch after returning with his family to New Zealand.
Ball's early cartoons often had political overtones (his mid-70s UK strips included All the King's Comrades, and he described himself in the introduction to The Sisterhood (1993) as a socialist. Stanley often expresses left-wing attitudes.
Tributes paid to him included these:
Murray was a great influence to many Australian cartoonists and will be long remembered by his friends across the sea here in Australia.
Ball was funny and goofy and generous, and incredibly serious about inequality
After 1975 Ball wrote several comics in New Zealand (for instance 'Nature Calls'), but it was in 1976 that he first published the strip Footrot Flats in Wellington's afternoon newspaper, The Evening Post. It rapidly led to the demise of his other strips including Stanley, which he was still writing for Punch.
The strip follows the adventures of a working sheep-dog called (if anything) "Dog" or "The Dog" or "@*&#!", his owner Wal Footrot and the other characters, human and animal, that they encounter or associate with. Ball expresses Dog's thoughts in thought-bubbles, though he clearly remains "just a dog" (rather than the heavily anthropomorphised creatures sometimes found in other comics or animation). Dog also has alter-egos including "The Grey Ghost" and "The Iron Paw".
Ball's Footrot Flats has appeared in syndication in international newspapers, and in over 40 published books. Footrot Flats inspired a stage musical, a theme-park and New Zealand's first feature-length animated film, Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale (1986). Footrot Flats characters include Wal, Dog, Cooch, Cheeky Hobson, Aunt Dolly, Horse, Pongo, Rangi, Charlie, Major, Jess and the Murphy family of Irish and Hunk and Spit.
Footrot Flats features several remarkable traits: its expansive created-universe, complete with ancillary characters, things and places; the fact that the characters slowly but perceptibly age and mature throughout the twenty-year run of the comic; and the gradual encroachment of political themes over the years (particularly environmentalism and gentle parodies of feminism).
Ball said he has always wanted his cartooning to have an impact. "The heart of a cartoon is the idea, an artist can create a painting, hang it on the wall and be satisfied with what he has achieved even if no-one else sees it. In cartooning, you must get a human reaction to the idea. The task of the cartoonist is to translate his idea into a drawing that will have impact".
Ball lived with his wife Pam on a rural property in Gisborne, New Zealand. In an interview on Radio New Zealand National on 27 January 2016, Pam stated that Murray's health was poor for the last six years and that he was suffering from dementia. Longtime friend and collaborator Tom Scott said that on Sunday 12 March 2017 he had been advised that Ball had died. He is survived by his wife and children.
Murray Ball and Charles M. Schulz each admired the other's work. One Foothirot Flats strip shows Dog laughing at a Snoopy cartoon. Schulz wrote the introduction to the only Footrot Flats published in the United States (it appeared as Footrot Flats there, but as Footrot Flats 4 in Australasia.)