NEW YORK, FEB. 13 -- Yet another once-meteoric Wall Street career crashed in flames today when George L. Ball stepped down as head of Prudential-Bache Securities Inc. after it racked up more than $250 million in losses over the course of his nine-year reign.

Ball's resignation at age 52 marked a dramatic -- and, according to many on Wall Street, overdue -- setback in one of the most controversial and visible careers in the securities industry in the past two decades.

After leaving E.F. Hutton & Co., where an illegal check-overdrafting scheme was carried out while he was president there from 1977 to 1982, Ball presided over an aggressive, costly and ultimately unsuccessful effort to build Prudential-Bache into an investment banking powerhouse in the late 1980s.

The results of those ambitious plans led to his downfall today at Prudential-Bache, the nation's fourth-largest securities brokerage firm. Although the firm's parent company, the Prudential Insurance Co. of America, insisted that Ball himself made the decision to resign, it made clear that he was doing so because of Prudential-Bache's poor performance.

"For both George and me this is a step we regret, but we have both concluded that the recent history of Prudential-Bache makes it desirable to change the leadership of the organization," Robert C. Winters, Prudential Insurance's chairman, said in a statement.

Ball will remain as chairman of Prudential-Bache until a successor is found, the statement said.

But he was replaced immediately as the firm's chief executive.

The new acting chief executive, who will hold the position for a transitional period, is Robert A. Beck, chairman emeritus of Prudential, who retired as chairman and chief executive of the insurance company in 1987. "A search for a successor to Ball is underway," Prudential said.

Ball, who is no relation to the former state department official George W. Ball, once had one of the most promising careers on Wall Street. Starting as a retail sales broker at E.F. Hutton, he worked his way up to become president at age 38.

Ball moved to Prudential-Bache in July 1982, before revelations surfaced about the check-overdraft scheme. E.F. Hutton pleaded guilty in 1985 to 2,000 counts of mail and wire fraud. Ball denied knowing of the crimes, and his only punishment was to be censured by the New York Stock Exchange for failing to carry out adequate supervision to prevent the misconduct.

Nevertheless, Ball soon was embroiled in controversy in his new job at the helm of Prudential-Bache.

In 1986, he launched a three-year program to transform the firm from a large but unexceptional retail brokerage company, which specialized in selling securities to customers, into an investment banking powerhouse that would advise big corporations on deals and make acquisitions itself.

The foray proved disastrous. It has played the biggest role in causing the direct losses of at least $257 million suffered by Prudential-Bache since Ball took over.

As a result, Prudential, the nation's largest insurer, has only red ink to show for its $385 million purchase of the Bache Group Inc. in 1981, and for the more than $1.2 billion that it has pumped into the firm since then in the hopes of creating a financial supermarket of sorts that could offer one-stop shopping for all types of financial needs.

Last year, largely because of pressure from Prudential to cut the losses, Prudential-Bache threw in the towel and sharply cut back its investment banking activities. The moves included closing an unsuccessful arbitrage department set up to speculate in the stocks of takeover targets.

The firm said it would in the future concentrate on the retail brokerage and mutual fund businesses where it traditionally had prospered, but the shift apparently was too late to save Ball's job.

Under Ball's leadership, the securities firm "has delivered unsatisfactory returns, especially considering the amount of risk in the business," said William J. Cavanagh, a vice president and insurance company analyst at Standard & Poor's Corp. here.

Ball "led their move into investment banking and merchant banking, and they spent a lot of money trying unsuccessfully to become a presence in those markets," Cavanagh noted.

Other Wall Street executives, who spoke on condition that they remain unidentified, were more blunt.

"The facts finally caught up with him. They've done nothing but lose money. They're just dragging down the poor Pru," a source said.

Several executives faulted Ball's strategy of trying to build an investment banking business from scratch. In particular, they criticized his willingness to pay high salaries to lure investment bankers without doing the crucial, long-term work of gradually cultivating a client base.

"He gave huge {salary} guarantees to so-so investment bankers," a source said. "How can you make money if you start off in the red? You can't make it up for years."

Ball did not return phone calls today. The firm declined to comment on one bit of information that Wall Street will eagerly await: the size of his severance package.